Hello and welcome to the first installment of my miniseries on how to prevent future pandemics! There are a lot of different aspects to preventing future pandemics, but I will focus on four main areas: vaccinations, societal infrastructure, public health infrastructure, and research. We’ll focus on one of these areas over the course of four different posts. This post will focus on vaccines.
Everyone in the world having access to vaccines and compliance with vaccine schedules saves lives. Vaccines prevent us from having outbreaks of diseases that we’ve already defeated. Want examples?
- Measles—according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the measles vaccine prevented 23.2 MILLION deaths between the years 2000 and 20181.
- Polio—wild polio cases have decreased by over 99% since 1988 (from ~350,000 to just 175 in 2019)2.
- Rubella—the rubella vaccine is responsible for the global number of cases declining 97% (~670,894 in 2000 to 14,621 in 2018)3. Additionally, between 1964 and 1965, there was a rubella outbreak that infected 12.5 million Americans, killed 2,000 infants, and caused ~11,000 miscarriages. Since 2012, we’ve only seen ~15 cases of rubella in the United States4.
- Diphtheria—In 1921, 15,000 people died in the United States from diphtheria. Between 2004 and 2014, 2 cases total were reported4.
As illustrated in the examples above, vaccines have been game changers for us as a species. Vaccines are one of the single most successful public health interventions that we have. Did you know that we have vaccines to help protect us from 26 different diseases5? That’s AWESOME because you no longer have to battle chickenpox, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Hib, HPV, measles, meningococcal, mumps, pneumococcal, polio, rotavirus, rubella, shingles, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), adenovirus, anthrax, cholera, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, and yellow fever5. In case you lost interest halfway through that exhaustive list, it’s an impressive list. And that’s not all. We’ve got about 25 other vaccines currently in development for other diseases, including COVID-196, 7.
Vaccines work by introducing your body to little parts of the pathogen (the thing that causes the disease). It helps to train your immune system to recognize and prepare for it in case it ever comes into contact with it in the future. It allows you to develop immunity to that disease without actually having had the disease. Think of vaccines as you do when you install anti-virus software on your computer. It helps to repel the bad agents (pathogens) and keeps your machine running smoothly and error free (healthier).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “If vaccination rates dropped to low levels nationally, diseases could become as common as they were before vaccines…Disease rates are low in the United States today. But if we let ourselves become vulnerable by not vaccinating, a case that could touch off an outbreak of some disease that is currently under control is just a plane ride away.”4 Especially with travel so open and accessible across the globe, it’s imperative that we try to keep the diseases that we can, under control. The current situation that we find ourselves in reminds us that when we don’t have a good way to control a disease (like a vaccine), our lives can look radically different.
The World Health Organization has issued some guiding principles for immunization activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, which states: “Immunization [vaccination] is an essential health service which may be affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Disruption of immunization services, even for brief periods, will result in increased numbers of susceptible individuals and raise the likelihood of outbreak-prone vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) such as measles.”8 These diseases are still around and the fewer people that are vaccinated against them, the greater our chance of experiencing co-occurring epidemics.
The possibility of co-occurring epidemics is a reality that some places in the world are seriously facing right now. So much so that the American Red Cross, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Foundation, and the World Health Organization issued a joint statement regarding the ongoing global measles and rubella vaccination efforts during this COVID-19 pandemic: “Despite having a safe and effective vaccine for over 50 years, measles cases surged over recent years and claimed more than 140,000 lives in 2018, mostly of children and babies—all of which were preventable…Together, more than 117 million children in 37 countries, many of whom live in regions with ongoing measles outbreaks, could be impacted by the suspension of schedule immunization activities. This staggering number does not include the number of infants that may not be vaccinated because of the effect of COVID-19 on routine immunization services. Children younger than 12 months of age are more likely to die from measles complications, and if the circulation of measles virus is not stopped, their risk of exposure to measles will increase daily.”9 While new pathogens are always going to be a threat, staying current on your vaccines helps us to keep pandemics contained to new pathogens instead of new AND familiar pathogens.
What you can do:
- Make sure your kids are following the vaccine schedule that has been updated for 2020 and is officially endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 10, 11
- Annual physicals for you and your family. During those annual physicals, talk to your doctor about titer and immunity testing. Those things help determine if you may need a booster on one of your vaccines.
- Flu shot every year for everyone in your family.
- Check your sources before spreading information about vaccines. Make sure that you are gathering your information from a reliable source (like the CDC or your primary care doctor), so we can collectively reduce the spread of misinformation about vaccines on the internet. I touched on this in a previous post: https://www.coaccess.com/outbreaks/. Also, check out what the American Medical Association has to say on this topic.12 Spreading misinformation about vaccines is harmful to the community and bad for public health.
- The World Health Organization. Measles Fact Sheet. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/measles
- The World Health Organization. Poliomyelitis (polio). https://www.who.int/health-topics/poliomyelitis#tab=tab_1
- The World Health Organization. Rubella. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/rubella
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccines and Immunizations. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/whatifstop.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccines and Preventable Diseases. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/vaccines-diseases.html
- World Health Organization. Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. https://www.who.int/immunization/diseases/en/
- National Institutes of Health. News Releases: NIH clinical trial of investigational vaccine for COVID-19 begins. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-clinical-trial-investigational-vaccine-covid-19-begins
- The World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) technical guidance: Maintaining Essential Health Services and Systems. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/maintaining-essential-health-services-and-systems
- World Health Organization. Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. https://www.who.int/immunization/diseases/measles/statement_missing_measles_vaccines_covid-19/en/
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Vaccine. Immunizations. Immunization schedules. https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/immunizations/Pages/Immunization-Schedule.aspx
- American Academy of Pediatrics Point-of-Care Solutions. Red Book Online. Immunizations Schedules for 2020. https://redbook.solutions.aap.org/selfserve/ssPage.aspx?SelfServeContentId=Immunization_Schedules
- The American Medical Association. Public Health: Stopping the scourge of social media misinformation on vaccines. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/stopping-scourge-social-media-misinformation-vaccines