You and I never really knew the fear that followed these diseases around our communities. None of our classmates were crippled by polio; we didn’t lose a sibling to pertussis; we never knew a neighbour to be killed by diphtheria.
Sadly there are still rare cases where pertussis, measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases kill otherwise healthy people in Europe, but most people are not affected directly.
Naturally, these diseases slipped down our list of priorities because they are not part of our everyday lives. We are much more concerned about chronic conditions like diabetes or cardiovascular diseases – which is quite reasonable given their impact.
But there was a time, no so long ago, when infectious diseases were much, much more common. This fascinating documentary from Australia speaks to people who remember only too well what it was like to live in a time when vaccines against these diseases were not available.
The video is a timely reminder of the menace vaccine-preventable diseases can be. If we grow complacent about the risk and allow vaccination rates to slip, these diseases will take the opportunity to return and remind us of the damage they can do.
Breaking the cycle
This video of a TED talk given by Prof Adam Finn of the University of Bristol includes a really interesting case study in complacency. Prof Finn looks at data from the 1930s when it was not uncommon for pertussis outbreaks to kill children.
Then, in the 1950s, the number of cases and the death rate from whooping cough plummeted thanks to the first pertussis vaccine. The problem appeared to be solved.
Fast-forward to 1978. Everyone had forgotten about whooping cough. A theory, later shown to be false, circulated which raised concerns about the safety of the whooping cough vaccine.
Confidence plummeted. In some countries –like the UK, Italy and Germany – more than half of all parents stopped using the vaccine. “Inevitably the epidemics started again and many young lives were lost,” explains Prof Finn.
Of course, that trend was reversed in the wake of several outbreaks and immunisation rates returned to a sufficiently high level…
…and then vaccine uptake slipped a little and a fresh wave of cases came to remind us why vaccination is important.
The question is how can we really learn the lessons of history? How can we break the cycle of fear followed by complacency followed by outbreaks?
Perhaps by watching and sharing the video about we can encourage everyone to follow recommended vaccine schedules.
Better to be reminded of the dangers of disease by YouTube video than by a local epidemic.