The importance of vaccines

Subtle science


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The principle at the root of vaccination is that instead of waiting for infection by a given disease-causing germ, we purposely expose ourselves to an inactivated version of the germ.

Plymouth, Minn.

The world is now scrambling to produce a vaccine that may save millions of lives. But, in fact, vaccines have saved millions of lives well before COVID-19. In the United States, Europe, and in other parts of the world that enjoy the privilege of scientific health care, vaccines have been a big part of what has kept people alive through their childhood and productive lives.

Many people in our world suffer greatly from the effects of infectious disease. When I was living in Norway, one of my good friends was from rural Russia. He walked with a halting gait. His legs somehow never quite straightened out. In fact, he had had polio as a child. He was the youngest person I had ever met who exhibited the effects of polio. But from my own childhood, I remember a neighbor my dad’s age with a shriveled right leg and a relative whose arm was twisted up against his chest like a chicken wing.

Growing up in Minnesota, none of the kids my age died from polio, lost the use of a limb, or lived their lives using a breathing apparatus because of the effects of the disease. Kids my age stood in line at school to get vaccines administered through national programs. I also remember getting the BCG (bacille Calmette-Guerin) shot against tuberculosis in 1967, when I spent a school year in Oslo. Folks my age kind of took it for granted that people were more or less free from infectious disease. We may have forgotten to tell our kids and grandkids about a world where a virus might leave a person debilitated.

Now we are all hoping and praying for a vaccine that will prevent COVID-19. We have seen how an infection can end the lives of millions of people and simultaneously derail the global economy. U.S. taxpayers are spending billions of dollars in a mad dash to produce the vaccine—all on the background of predictions that this day would certainly come, that it was just a matter of time, and that prudent investment in anticipatory vaccine development could avert the kind of crisis we are now living in.

Yes, we are all hoping and praying for a vaccine—except some of us are not. As it turns out, about one-third of Americans have expressed doubts about getting vaccinated. Among this third of the population are those who are, in principle, against vaccines. It is very hard for me to understand which principles they bring to bear in their stance against vaccination. Like I wrote above, the world I grew up in was very different. Scientific advances, typified by our moonshot were celebrated by the population. People knew about how it used to be and didn’t want to go back to a time when diseases came like thieves in the night.

Although I find it very hard to understand how people can be “anti-vaxxers,” I do understand that the science surrounding vaccination is subtle and paradoxical. The understanding that people could acquire immunity to a specific disease by limited exposure to disease agents was known already in the 16th century. People would inhale ground scabs from smallpox sufferers. Why did this work? It is not immediately obvious, is it?

Now we understand that there is an interplay of various types of cells and the germs to which we are exposed. These blood cells produce molecules that we know as antibodies. Antibodies attach to germ parts and mark germs for destruction. Also, the cells that produce these successfully binding antibodies are stimulated to grow and multiply, mustering a legion of clones armed with identical antibodies against the germ. This counterattack against germs by antibodies is supplemented by cells that “remember” the germ bits. There are several kinds of cells that are activated in an immune response, and each type is influenced by “an impression” of some specific part of the disease-causing germ.

So, the activities of certain types of cells present in our blood and other body fluids are thereby responsible for clearing our bodies of the germs that cause us to get sick the first time around. And at the same time, these cells provide an early warning system should the same kinds of germs infect us a second time.

Like I said, the science is subtle, and I am not surprised that most people would rather not do the heavy lifting needed for a detailed understanding. But I also think that many of us, like the pox scab-sniffers of old, somehow intuit that our bodies “form an image” of a disease-causing germ, fight it down, and are ready for it if it ever comes back. The principle at the root of vaccination is that instead of waiting for infection by a given disease-causing germ, we purposely expose ourselves to an inactivated version of the germ. If we are vaccinated in advance of any potential infection, we may avoid sickness altogether, or become less sick if the germ does get hold.

And therein lies the rub. Vaccines are not “medicines” in the normal sense of the word since they do not help you once you are already sick. You have to be vaccinated to avoid sickness if and when you are exposed. On top of that, most vaccines are not 100% effective. Rather, they work best when you and everyone else you know has been vaccinated. Some individuals in a vaccinated population may get sick, but the likelihood of spread is reduced—the so-called “herd immunity” effect.

A vaccine that hinders the coronavirus will save millions of lives. And millions of lives have already been saved because of the vaccine programs still in progress directed at other diseases. I have no trouble asserting that most of the people I know now would not be here today except that they (or their parents) avoided death because of the vaccines they received at some point in their lives. No one knows who would have lived or died in a vaccine-free 20th century United States or Norway. But I am very sure the difference would be stark—and the world would have been a much poorer place.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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John Erik Stacy

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and has now returned there after over 30 years divided between Oslo and Seattle. He studied Biology at the University of Oslo and worked there several years leading the DNA laboratory for Systematics and Ecology. He also worked as a senior scientist and team leader for a biotech startup at the Oslo Research Park, where he developed automated systems in antibody discovery. He continues to hold investments and consult for companies at the Research Park and travels frequently to Oslo.