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The importance of vaccines

Three big items have occupied the news lately: Protest marches, coronavirus, and Politics. Even though I believe there was another protest demonstration in Portland, it seems that that big item is going downhill at least a little and as the weather gets colder or wetter, we may find that continuing to fading a bit. The coronavirus on the other hand continues to go from hot to cold to hot again with the concern now bringing in other disease concerns such as the fall flu season. This week promises to be more politics as well with the Post Office fiasco and the Virtual Democratic National Convention and with the Republican Convention coming not far behind.

My last column I did have a political point or two I attempted to make, so this week I will go to the disease topic. For that I will start far far into the past.

About 2,500 years ago in the Egyptian Empire at the time, a disease appeared that ravaged the populace there and then moved on eventually affecting virtually the entire world. After about 600 years, the disease moved across through southern Asia clear to Japan. The disease is known as smallpox.

Smallpox probably traveled along the trade routes to China. By the seventh century it had also affected most of northern Africa. Europe became infected by participating in the Crusades when the Crusaders traveled south and east to the eastern Mediterranean Holy Land. By the 15th century the rest of Africa was infected and in the 16th century by various explorers and with the slave trade, the disease moved to South America and Central America. The 17th century the disease took hold in North America. The culprit was the variola virus and about 3/10ths of those who got the virus died. In the last 100 years of the virus, it caused at least 500 million deaths. It shared a characteristic of the coronavirus in that infections could come from airborne particles.

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We are indebted to the British scientist Edward Jenner about the year 1796 for developing a vaccine by using a similar, but less fatal disease, cowpox. Jenner noted that milkmaids seemed to never get smallpox. So the vaccine essentially induced a mild case of cowpox that then caused the body to resist the variola virus of smallpox. At an early age I was vaccinated for smallpox by having my arm scratched with a bit of the “cowpox like virus.” Each year in grade school all the students were asked to show the small scar where they had been vaccinated in that way. (Anyone else out there remember that?) With improvements in the vaccine, the last known case of smallpox occurred in 1977 when Maow Maolin was with two smallpox patients. He survived the illness and no other person has had smallpox since!! Maow died in 2013 from malaria while working on polio eradication which brings me to the next disease. Before I get to that, I would note that samples of the variola virus are held in two countries: U.S. and Russia. Unfortunately, there are rumors that Iraq, Korea, and France may also have some samples of the variola virus. In 1980 WHO (the World Health Organization) declared that the world was free of smallpox.

LESSON LEARNED: Vaccinations are important for many diseases.

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I have mentioned polio in the past in a couple of my columns. Smallpox is the only disease that has been totally eradicated from the world’s population. However, it is possible that a second disease could be eradicated and that is the case for polio. It will be much harder to do than it was for smallpox. However, we have made great progress and we have reduced cases of polio by better than 99%. There are just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, that still have cases of the wild polio virus. The disease is not curable, but it is preventable which is possible with vaccinations.

Those of you who are around my age probably remember the news stories from the early 1950s telling of not just one vaccine, but two. The first one was developed by Jonas Salk and that was soon followed by an oral vaccination developed by Albert Sabin. If I remember correctly the early application was a liquid on a sugar cube, but later was droplets from an eye-dropper like device.

To have complete irradication, it is necessary that EVERY child be vaccinated. If just one child is left with any infection at all, the potential is there to infect others. Furthermore, with our current ability to travel around the globe, a person who might not have any outward signs of the disease can travel around and affect others thousands of miles away from their original location. In that sense it is similar to our current problems with the coronavirus.

The Gates Foundation and Rotary International have been helping fund the fight against polio worldwide for many years, providing in excess of $2 billion along with cooperation of WHO, UNICEF, CDC, GAVI-the Vaccine Alliance, and various goverments.

The Gates Foundation in January agreed to match donations on a two for one basis for up to $50 million for each of the next three years. That alone will cause a donation of $450 million. In addition Rotary International will provide $45 million more for specific countries in Africa and Asia, which allows them to continue vaccination programs in their countries.

Coming up on the 24th of October is World Polio Day.

Coming up for all of us is the fall vaccination date for influenza.

Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!

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