Vaccines or no vaccines? This pivotal question has created an agonizing stalemate between individuals of our community. Those supporting vaccines, pro-vaxxers, argue injecting weak and safe strains of pathogens into individuals builds immunity and strengthens the body against even the deadliest of infections. Those opposing vaccines, anti-vaxxers, retort that injecting strains of pathogens into individuals is immoral as it induces infection and other negative side-effects; they favor natural immunity as opposed to vaccine-induced immunity.
Regardless of the side one takes, there is no denying that many of the world’s most life-threatening diseases have been significantly diminished if not eradicated in society, all thanks to the worldwide effort to vaccinate as many individuals as possible. According to a CDC article, polio is just one example of some of the many diseases we have forgotten about, all thanks to the universal immunity vaccines are providing.
In the 20th century, there was a point when polio was one of the most deadly and feared diseases in industrialized countries like the United States. According to another CDC article, in the 1940s, the disease took a toll on almost 35,000 individuals each year. According to an NPR article, in 1952, about 60,000 children were infected with the virus and more than 3,000 of them died.
A National Museum of American History article states that in 1921, even a wealthy and well-known political figure — President Franklin D. Roosevelt — was diagnosed with polio and began to battle paralysis. At this point, the fear of polio intensified. The President’s diagnosis of the nasty disease revealed that the polio virus attacked without discrimination; rich or poor, polio was a true threat to all those living in the U.S. and beyond.
An NPR article details how all sorts of measures were taken to reduce poliovirus transmission on a daily basis. In the summer, during “polio peak season,” parents barred their children from leaving the house and enjoying summertime fun in the community pools. Even movie theaters advised their clients to sit at a distance from one another to minimize the risk of poliovirus transmission.
Fast forward about 70 years and we’re celebrating how the U.S. has been polio-free since 1979, all thanks to the polio vaccine. Furthermore, there are only three countries in the world with polio transmission — Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
However, the celebrations may be a bit premature.
According to an NPR article, “vaccine-derived” polio outbreaks are springing up in countries outside of the traditional three polio epicenters — the Philippines, China, Myanmar, Pakistan and a few African countries. In developing countries with unstable healthcare systems, the oral vaccine is the most abundant and cheapest measure of protection against the poliovirus. In these oral vaccines, in contrast to the more expensive, injectable vaccines, there are live but weak strains of the poliovirus. In areas with poor sanitation, the weakened but live strain of poliovirus naturally present in the sewage system is transmitted to the drinking water. Over time, the virus gains strength and reverts to a stage where its efficacy to paralyze victims returns.
Naturally, anti-vaxxers will use these outbreaks as leverage to reinforce their beliefs of “natural immunity” and the “immoral” perils of vaccinations.
While a child inflicted with polio in 2019 is already one too many, these recent outbreaks represent minor setbacks to an already successful initiative to reduce the transmission of polio worldwide. Before joining the anti-vaxxer bandwagon, it is important to remember the progress achieved so far thanks to vaccinations. A Polio Global Eradication Initiative article states that since 1988, when more than 1,000 children a day were being paralyzed with polio, greater than 2.5 billion children have been vaccinated all thanks to the cooperation of many countries and volunteers a part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The result: Polio cases decreased by 99% worldwide.
Consequently, blaming the weak but live strains of polio found in the oral vaccines for these recent polio outbreaks is short-sighted.
These new outbreaks have shone light on pressing issues present on the international scale. For example, because of the nonexistent sewage system in many of these low-income countries, the separation between drinking water and waste is not established. For this reason, the live polio virus is easily able to circulate from sewage to drinking water and therefore have a direct mode of entry into potential victims.
Instead of using this unfortunate reality to fuel the ongoing and never-ending vaccination debate, we should take a step back and recognize vaccinations are not the only variable here. Sanitation systems, corrupt governments, broken economies, poor access to healthcare, unequal distribution of wealth and religious wars are only a few variables we have failed to consider that are responsible not only for these recent outbreaks but for why Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are still polio-transmission sites.
It is important to be vocal about the importance of vaccinations. However, when the time calls for urgent action, like now, it is doubly important to put the bickering between pro-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers aside to focus on creating a meaningful effort that controls these other variables at play. This may mean raising awareness about inaccessible healthcare systems on your college campus, becoming involved in an non-governmental organization centered around human rights or electing leaders to office that are cognizant of the urgency of such issues.
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Mehak Sharma is a campus contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.