Sixty-five years ago, the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk was tested in a landmark efficacy trial. Participants in the trial were called “Polio Pioneers,” and families lined up to receive a vaccine they hoped would prevent their children from contracting this terrifying disease that can cause paralysis and death.
The trial was successful and the deployment of this and later vaccines against polio reduced the disease to a memory for most people in the U.S., highlighting the ability of vaccines to control diseases that once threatened the lives of our children. Despite the vaccine’s success, however, polio still exists and resistance to vaccination is among the factors delaying total eradication.
Unrest around vaccination is nothing new and protests against vaccination have gone on for more than a century, targeting nearly every vaccine medical science has developed. Anti-vaccination societies campaigned against the use of smallpox vaccination in the 1800s and 1900s by claiming lack of efficacy and safety, and by decrying the imposition on personal liberty that mandatory vaccination imposes. Despite these claims, independent reviews of the data found the vaccine was safe and effective and, fortunately, concerted efforts by the World Health Organization and many people worldwide allowed us to eliminate smallpox in 1977. It’s safe to say that no anti-vaccine protestor regrets the extinction of that disease.
We are now in another era of resistance to vaccination and we are seeing how pockets of poor vaccine coverage have created fertile ground for the recent measles outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest, New York and Texas. Resistance to vaccination arises from many factors, including religious objections, a belief that vaccine-preventable childhood illnesses are not severe, that having natural infection is “better” than vaccination or that vaccines cause harm to the growing child’s body. Unfortunately, these measles outbreaks have highlighted how quickly a disease thought to be gone from modern America can spread from some other part of the world, leaving parents scrambling to find ways to protect their children from one of the most contagious viruses known.
When an infectious disease is a clear and present threat, convincing people of the benefits of vaccination against it is relatively easy. Once you have seen a child turn blue and his own ribs break during a case of whooping cough, a vaccine makes sense. When you see blindness and mental retardation due to congenital rubella, a vaccine makes sense.