Each generation leaves a legacy behind them – there are tales of love and war, myths of gods and goddesses but it is only written or oral words that can really give us a real narrative of what happened.
The history of human health can be analysed through forensic investigation. Current scientists can work out what our ancestors ate and what diseases they died of and this will be true of the future. To think about the next generation I want to take a look at the past, then explore our current health narrative.
I will be discussing vaccination in a positive light and making an argument as to why we need to think about disease prevention for the people who will be following us, once we have departed. If you have doubts, then please take the time to read what I have to say, as I believe I have a lot to share with you. I am going to start my exploration with a story of a milkmaid and a doctor.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823) is credited for the development of the smallpox vaccination. However, apparently, it wasn’t him who made the connection between using the serum of cowpox to vaccinate against smallpox. It was one of his milkmaids who told him she knew getting cowpox gave her immunity from smallpox.
Jenner took this idea forward and developed the world’s first-ever immunisation. He was what we would call today an outsider scientist. He took his idea to the established medical community, only to be laughed out of the room. Eventually, his idea was accepted and smallpox was eliminated from the world in 1977.
Nonetheless, the day immunisation was invented, the anti-vaccination movement commenced. Soon after nonsensical myths started, such as parents believing that the vaccine would give their children bovine features or at worse turn them into cows. Infant deaths were associated with the inoculation months and years after it was given and as we will see, there are similar myths today.
I argue that many of us in the West live behind a golden veil of adequate healthcare, especially those who live in the UK. Before the World Wars, people still lived in fear of becoming infected with life-crippling/threatening diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, pertussis, and measles. Life expectancy was short and if you did make it to older age, it was probably grim.
After the Second World War, Bevan developed the National Health Service alongside Public Health Services and these included vaccination programmes; the idea being that vaccines prevent us from having to be hospitalised. Anti-vaccination beliefs still continued, especially and not unsurprisingly with the thalidomide scandal in the 1960s, however, uptake did remain high until the 90s.
In 1992 Andrew Wakefield, a pro-vaccination Consultant at the Royal Free Hospital published an unethical study in the Lancet. He had a financial interest in selling the single vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella; so he set out to discredit the MMR, a single jab containing all three vaccinations. He claimed that it upset gut bacteria and was an underlying cause of autism. It is important to note that the underpinning paradigm of science is to disprove theories, not prove them, and since then study after study has found no correlation between the MMR and autism. However, the combination of his falsified research, sensational journalism and wider use of the World Wide Web, led to a more powerful anti-vaccination movement. Wakefield now makes a fair amount of money from his anti-vaxx campaigns, but I must emphasize, he had a financial interest in the single vaccines.
Anti-vax, vaccine hesitation is a complex matter and I for one have had many heated debates on social media. I have very good friends who do not like vaccines for all sorts of reasons and I respect their views. I do know there have been unethical practices, injury and death. But lessons are continually learned in the science community and as we have seen from AstraZeneca and Pfizer human trials, strict protocols and independent monitoring programmes are in place to ensure public safety.
People should also be able to challenge and ask questions, but my beef with the anti-vax movement is the spread of myth and lies. With the spread of COVID infection and the development of the new vaccines, myths have started to appear. I could not believe it when an old friend of mine put up a petition to stop Bill Gates putting a microchip in his vaccines. Another was that the Pfizer vaccine changes one’s DNA. Do these myths ring any bells? If these myths prevail and spread, this will prevent vaccine confidence and reduce take-up, this I believe will have disastrous consequences for the people in the future.
Many of the diseases, which we are able to prevent, are treated with antibiotics and antimicrobial medicines. It is a well-known fact that we need to reduce our use of these. I am a mere nurse, but what I do know is that current scientists watch how diseases behave and work out how organisms can be manipulated not to harm us. The Pfizer vaccination is a perfect example of this, as it can look at the genome and behaviour of a virus and the vaccination gives a message to the cell to tell it how to defend itself. With this incredible piece of science, I believe that it won’t be long until we will be able to reduce our antibiotic, antimicrobial use.
Not everybody is a lover of science, and of course, many people would like to live a natural lifestyle, so vaccines and medicines are counterintuitive to this ideology. I question what natural means in this sense? I know that if I were dumped in the Amazon for a night, I would be munched on by all sorts of weird bugs pretty quickly. Equally, I live in a city and if I were deprived of clean water, sanitation and vaccination, invisible diseases such as cholera and diphtheria would also be sitting at my bedside waiting to get me.
The obsession with our individual natural health can be coined as healthism. This is the notion that one’s own health is a priority above anyone or anything else. The Internet is awash with natural health advice and one recent argument I have fought against on social media is that herd immunity is a more natural way to beat COVID-19 than vaccination.
I have seen arguments for herd immunity based on the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, citing it was over within two years. When I have tried to point out numerous times, that up to 15 million people died, and the deceased were mostly the poor, pregnant women, old and ethnic minorities, I was rebuffed. I noted that people feel that they are unlikely to get ill, as they have a great immune system, which they attribute to a good night’s sleep, healthy diet and lots of exercise. This is a perfect example of healthism, I am afraid no amount of downward dog or yogi tea, will prevent or halt COVID, it is a game of Russian Roulette and you just do not know who you are going to pass it on to. I really encourage people to start to think of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.
History is sadly repeating itself. Here in the UK, COVID has disproportionately affected the old, the vulnerable and those who are living in poverty, who sadly always have poorer health outcomes. Additionally, we need to look at developing countries, as we hoard our vaccines and get vaccinated, this means less for others and this is termed vaccine nationalism. Contrary to the anti-vaxxer myth, Big Pharma has no interest in vaccinating the developing world, as there is no money there, hence charity organisations such as the Gates Foundation who make their mission to share vaccines out.
From the Rock’N’Roll 50s, Swinging 60s, Punk spitting 70s, Romantic 80s, to the Raving 90s – our generation has had the privilege of sharing close spaces, we haven’t had to concern ourselves with not breathing over each other. Back in the last century, our elders feared TB, it killed and maimed and they had to distance themselves for fear of a suffocating disease. The only passable infections that my social group ever worried themselves with were sexually transmitted disease, which meant a trip to the clap clinic.
COVID has now killed over two million people, which is probably a low estimation. Vaccination is the opposite of healthism; of course, it is important to eat healthy food, exercise and live well, however, vaccination shows that we care about others and those in the future. The world is rid of smallpox because our ancestors got the jab; are we the generation that could have rid the world of measles and polio, but decided not to?
What concerns me is whether to vaccinate or not doesn’t really concern my generation; we have made it to middle, older age. The late Ian Dury is the last person I physically saw who was crippled with polio, I have never seen someone scarred from smallpox. TB remains a worry, as I do come across it at work. I was recently shocked to find out that TB medication is now being appropriated to treat COVID patients in the West which deprives those in people in Eastern Europe, and their death rates are rising.
I am not here to try and persuade anyone to vaccinate as it is a choice and I hope it will continue to be. However, what I do ask is that as a generation – we need to think about what we leave behind and how our actions will affect those who come after us. Sadly Jenner’s statue was moved from Trafalgar Square in 1862 as the anti-vaccination movement opposed it, so now it sits quietly in Kensington Gardens. If I had my way, I would happily push his statue back to Trafalgar Square and add the clever milkmaid and her cow, for it is they who saved billions of lives.