Lessons from (recent) history

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

September 19th, 2014

Gary Finnegan

‘It is easy to forget how damaging diseases such as polio, pertussis and diphtheria can be. Indeed, if you were born in Europe in the last half century (as I was), it is quite likely that you never really knew these diseases first hand. ’


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.


  1. Judith


    September 16th, 2014

    In March 2012, dangerous new strains of whooping cough bacteria were reported in Australia . Researchers studying the strains said the vaccine itself was responsible. The reason for this is because, while whooping cough is primarily attributed to Bordetella pertussis infection, it is also caused by another closely related pathogen calledB. parapertussis, which the vaccine does NOT protect against. Two years earlier, scientists at Penn State had already reported that the pertussis vaccine significantly enhanced the colonization of B. parapertussis, thereby promoting vaccine-resistant whooping cough outbreaks .

    According to the authors:”… [V]accination led to a 40-fold enhancement of B. parapertussis colonization in the lungs of mice. these data suggest that the vaccine may be contributing to the observed rise in whooping cough incidence over the last decade by promoting B. parapertussis infection.”


  2. Gary Finnegan

    Gary Finnegan

    September 22nd, 2014

    Hi Judith,
    There are a number of theories as to the reasons behind the resurgence of pertussis.
    The WHO group (WHO SAGE pertussis working group) looked into this problem and published their findings earlier this year April 2014
    Among their key conclusions they found that:
    “There is no evidence of emergence of B. parapertussis in aP or wP using countries” (page 62 of report)”
    There is no evidence from the epidemiology of the disease around the world to indicate that the observations made by the Penn State group in mice actually translate into humans.