History of Pandemics
Pandemics have raged and ravaged the world since at least 430 BCE, when the first plague pandemic was recorded in Athens, resulting in 100,000 deaths or 25% of the population. Based on descriptions this may have been the first measles pandemic. Since then, millions have died from a variety of pandemics from cholera, typhoid, smallpox, measles and flu. Some of these pandemics lasted for years before they burned out as people died.
Efforts to control the spread of infectious diseases date back over 1000 years in China and India. From descriptions of symptoms at the time of these diseases include typhoid, smallpox, bubonic plague, measles and cholera killing thousands of people. In the past 200 years polio, influenza, Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19 are examples of new viruses resulting in epidemics and pandemics.
Vaccines stop pandemics, even when at their peak, along with other quasi-quarantine techniques such as masking, handwashing and social distancing. Vaccine development can take years to prove them safe and effective. Prior to development of vaccines, a technique known as variolation was used up to 1000 years ago in China. It showed up in the Americas through serendipitous circumstances.
African Slave Brings Lifesaving Technique to Prevent Smallpox
In the early 1700’s there was another smallpox outbreak in Boston infecting more than 11,000 people. In 1706, an African slave named Onesimus was sold to Cotton Mather. Mather, a prominent minister in Boston, learned from Onesimus that in Africa smallpox was prevented through a technique called Variolation. Fluid was collected from a smallpox blister and scratched into the skin of the person to be treated. Mather convinced his friend Dr. Zabied Boylston of the efficacy of the Variolation. Dr. Boylston was convinced and used Variolation on his son, family and friends and other Bostonians during the 1721 smallpox outbreak. The death rate dropped from 14% to 2% in those treated by Dr. Boylston.
Benjamin Franklin lost his 4 year old son to smallpox in 1736, and later in 1759, wrote about Variolation as the only protection against smallpox. He published epidemiological research showing that the death rate dropped from 9.3% to 1.4% after Variolation inoculation.
Edward Jenner is generally credited with developing the cowpox vaccination to prevent smallpox in 1796. As a child he had been give a Variolation inoculation against smallpox without adverse effects. He learned from talking with milkmaids that they were immune from smallpox because of previous exposure to cowpox. He developed a vaccine initially using cowpox to prevent smallpox. With the development of vaccines, Variolation was no longer necessary.
Vaccines End Pandemics
For the last 200 years vaccines have been developed for infectious diseases and to prevent death. Initially the vaccines were given after the fact, after the disease was already in the environment: typhoid vaccination in 1899 to the British military to prevent further spread of typhoid, measles vaccine in 1963 to deal with the measles outbreak in the United States.
The 2019-2021 COVID-19 Pandemic is our albatross to bear. There is a big difference between reading about pandemics and surviving them. The intrusion into everyday life is not imaginable until we live through it, as we isolate, wear masks, decontaminate everything both human and inanimate. Schools, shops, libraries, salons and every aspect of life is altered by closure or restrictions.
The human toll to date has been unimaginable. As of 7 April 2021, 133,000,000 have contracted COVID 19 with nearly 3 million deaths. In the United States we are currently at 31.5 million having had the virus and 570,000 + have died. As in previous pandemics only vaccines will stop its progression since variants develop as it spreads.
Over the past few months several vaccines have been introduced and millions are receiving vaccinations as rapidly as the drug is available. The adverse response to vaccinating efforts is that people are letting down their guard faster than the population is protected. For the pandemic to be eradicated enough people need to be vaccinated, so that those who choose not to be vaccinated are too few to transmit the disease to others not vaccinated. This is the herd immunity phenomena and why there is such an effort for mass vaccinations to take place as quickly as possible.
Herd Immunity Essential
As of early April 2021, nearly 25% of the adult population in the US has had at least one vaccine. Nearly 3,000,000 are receiving vaccines daily. Yet despite the success and gradually increased number of people vaccinated, about 25% of folks are not planning to or are hesitant about obtaining the vaccine. This is a problem. We will not obtain herd immunity unless 70-80% of the population is vaccinated.
Anti-vaxxers are not all the same but have various rationales for refusing vaccinations. Sometimes politics and history influence decisions. Today 36% of Republicans vs 6% of Democrats are against vaccinations. Four years of denigrating science and the CDC, including proclaiming COVID 19 as a hoax, has contributed to doubting in the government and vaccine development process. The backdrop of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study where the Negro subjects were not treated once a cure had been identified is unconscionable. The lingering distrust of government in the treatment of disease can well be understood. Truth, education and persistence are necessary to rebuild trust in the process to encourage Blacks to become vaccinated.
However, over the past months the consistent message from CDC and the Biden Administration is taking hold. More and more people are encouraged and eager for the pandemic to be over, to resume their old life and to obtain the vaccines to make that happen.
Each of us reinforces the importance of becoming vaccinated as we talk of our experiences before and after vaccinations. No treatment is flawless, but the success rate for all the vaccines is quite extraordinary. The speed of the development of vaccines was not only extraordinary, their effectiveness with very few side effects is as well. Listen to the science, not to the fear mongers and anti-vaxxers. Your life may depend upon it! We need everyone to participate in order to develop the herd immunity necessary to resume our lives.