Vaccines have given us such remarkable peace of mind that we have come to take them for granted. Can we really any longer imagine the world before vaccines? Imagine for a minute what it was like when the virus out there was smallpox, a much deadlier epidemic disease than Covid-19. Or more recently, when the virus out there was polio, which regularly caused paralysis and death in children. People still had to go about their business and make their decisions about every detail of daily life: Attend a social gathering? Let your kid go to the swimming pool on a hot day?
Vaccines give us a way to protect ourselves individually, but they also give us a way to create a safer world. Smallpox vaccine was not only a person-by-person triumph, but a huge international human victory over an accumulated historical tide of human misery and death.
People have lost that sense of awe and gratitude for both the individual safety that vaccines represent, and also for the glorious communal project of collectively wiping out a source of pain and disability and death.
“Polio really taught people that science could do it,” Dr. Oshinsky said. “What made vaccines so vitally important at that time was that they were providing protection against diseases that were out there that people saw every day.”
And with the disappearance of many of those diseases, that sense of imminent danger had perhaps been lost. Consider the measles epidemic of 2019, which meant that not only the children whose parents distrusted and refused a safe and effective vaccine were at risk, but also that babies too young to be vaccinated and people with immune deficiencies were suddenly living with the possibility that the virus might be in their surroundings. Now, recent events have reminded us all of what it is like to feel vulnerable and unprotected.
Same thing with flu — there’s a safe flu vaccine, not always perfect, but it lowers your odds of getting the disease, and of getting really sick if you do get the disease. And again, flu vaccine reduces the chance that the virus will be circulating in the population, and that the vulnerable (children, the elderly, those with underlying medical conditions) will be exposed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates at least 20,000 (and possibly more than 50,000) deaths from flu this season in the United States, including over a hundred in children.
And yet, it’s a struggle every year to convince people to take flu seriously, to get vaccinated, to practice good handwashing — all the things that are suddenly understood to be matters of life and death. Maybe we could all resolve that next year (and yes, there will be a next year), we’ll take flu seriously and greet the flu vaccine with at least a little sense of celebration and appreciation of science and public health.