To the Editor:
The current public discourse on the choice about vaccinating one’s children is amusing. Last year, I had the privilege of reviewing original documents written by Edward Jenner on the development of the smallpox vaccine; Louis Pasteur on his development of vaccines for rabies, anthrax, and other “germs”; and numerous anti-vivisections documents from the period against vaccination.
These vaccines were created, especially the small pox vaccine in Jenner’s time, in the late 18th century, when no one had any real idea about viruses, bacteria, immunology or even the basics of infectious disease. Their success in creating effective vaccines was built on their personal observations and failures based on carefully identifying the specific criteria to make the vaccines work.
Subsequently, others, less careful, made vaccines often using the wrong sources of infectious agents as a variety of viruses and bacteria that caused pustules on the udders of cattle that looked like cow pox, the correct source of the “attenuated” virus that would protect humans against small pox.
Failures of such vaccines raised doubts about the safety and efficacy of vaccines over 200 years ago. These same situations were repeated when Salk developed a vaccine against polio over 50 years ago. He, too, was very precise with his methodology, which, when put into large-scale production, was not always carefully followed by commercial manufacturers resulting in outbreaks of polio and 10 deaths.
However, one of the authors of our commentary continues to suffer from the sequellae of childhood polio infection. I am a survivor thanks to the smallpox, rabies and polio vaccines. As such, I personally know the much greater good of vaccination.
Jenner actually wrote a letter to King George in 1800 stating “ …in the mild form of the Cow Pox, an antidote that is capable of extirpating from the earth a disease which is every hour devouring its victims; a disease that has ever been considered as the severest scourge of the human race!”
Vaccination enabled eradication of small pox! There always will be failures and occasionally catastrophes no matter what is done. However, vaccines have provided all of us a greater good, namely long, healthy lives.
Knowledge is power, and we know a great deal more about the viruses and bacteria that make us sick today than ever before. Vaccines are no longer attenuated but rather are genetically engineered to create “virus-like particles” that are antigenic but lack nucleic acids so they are not infectious, such as the cervical cancer vaccines directed against papillomaviruses.
We live in an amazing time where technology is creating better drugs and vaccines which will ultimately lower infant mortality and lengthen life span.
John P. Sundberg, D.V.M., Ph.D.