“The first ever vaccine was created when Edward Jenner, an English physician and scientist, successfully injected small amounts of a cowpox virus into a young boy to protect him from the related (and deadly) smallpox virus. But how does this seemingly counterintuitive process work? Kelwalin Dhanasarnsombut details the science behind vaccines.” (YouTube)
Vaccines are vitally important to the future health and well-being of the human race. The above video, by TEDEd, simplifies how vaccines work, to give you some basic background knowledge. If you’d rather have a comic version of how vaccines work, you can’t go far wrong by heading over to The Nib. The comic shows how vaccines were discovered, how they work, the extraordinary good they have done and continue to do, the whole MMR / Wakefield debacle, the chemicals within vaccines, the whole anti-vax movement, herd immunity, and the measles outbreak. It’s an excellent primer to get you up to speed on what is happening.
Concerning herd immunity, BuzzFeed has some great GIFs to show how it works. Those people who are unable to get vaccinated for health reasons (like the immunocompromised, or those allergic to vaccines, or people with cancer, or babies, for example), rely on herd immunity to stay healthy, and stay alive. It’s surprisingly simple for outbreaks to occur when herd immunity is not high enough, as explained over at The Incidental Economist. To put it into mathematical terms, you can think of it like Paul Erdös did, and look at the mathematics of networks. Relating to vaccinations: you want to reduce the number of connections to below the percolation threshold (the critical fraction of connections above which the network suddenly becomes totally connected, so that there is always a pathway between any two members). Having a higher vaccination rate achieves this.
To see the effectiveness of vaccines on many different diseases is eye-opening. Over at The Wall Street Journal, they have several brilliant graphics showing the impact vaccines had on infection rates in the 20th century. It’s quite remarkable to see how the infection rate of each disease declined very soon after the vaccine was introduced, in every different case.
And yet… many people are refusing to get vaccinated, which has resulted in the largest outbreak of measles at Disneyland in the United States of America in very long time. If enough people were vaccinated, and herd immunity was achieved, this outbreak would never have occurred. The Guardian shows how a measles outbreak spreads when kids are vaccinated, and when they’re not. Many anti-vaxxers claim that measles isn’t a bad disease, but that’s because they don’t know how terrible it can actually be (The Guardian). Despite this recent outbreak, they still refuse to get themselves or their kids vaccinated (The Guardian).
This has led to immunocompromised kids, or those with cancer, becoming far more susceptible to catching measles, due to the lack of herd immunity. There’s a moving letter over at Mother Jones, about a family who had to cancel their three-week vacation and spend that time in hospital instead, due to their two kids (one too young to get vaccinated, one with cancer) contracting measles due to the poor (dangerous, deluded, wrong) decisions of anti-vaxxers. Similar to this, Chad Hayes, MD wrote an excellent open letter to anti-vax parents; we’re not mad at you, but at the people in “authority” who have misled and lied to you. We all want what’s best for our children, and in this case, what’s best is for our children to get vaccinated. There is also a highly amusing, tongue-in-cheek post by Night of the Living Dead, entitled “Why we didn’t vaccinate our child“. The author talks about all the vaccines that they haven’t given their child, and the reasons behind why not. Give it a read, and smile.
Finally, it’s important to remember that measles is experienced all over the world, and this outbreak in the US is tiny compared to what is happening elsewhere. Nature has an interactive infographic showing measles by numbers, and the race to eradicate it completely (which we’re losing). The worldwide occurrence of measles, coupled with the growing anti-vax movement, means that outbreaks of measles will continue to happen in all countries, even in those in which measles has been officially eradicated in the past.
The solution to prevent this, however, is simple. Get yourself and your kids vaccinated, and live a healthier life. Onwards!