COVID-19 and History

Premier Pulse     August 2021

Belcastro_336x336By Marc Belcastro, DO, system chief medical officer, Premier Health

Premier Health recently joined health care systems and hospitals across the country and state with a vaccine requirement for COVID-19. I want to highlight the importance of vaccines by briefly considering the outbreaks of two deadly infectious diseases from recent history, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic bears similarities to them.

The 33rd World Health Assembly declared the world free of smallpox on May 8, 1980. This was considered one of the greatest public health achievements in history. Smallpox was a very contagious and deadly disease, not unlike SARS-CoV-2. North America and Europe eliminated this disease in 1952-1953, but it persisted in other parts of the world. In 1959, the World Health Organization announced an eradication campaign that was slow to gain momentum until 1967. Through mass vaccination, this scourge was finally defeated, but it took more than two decades. Estimates indicate smallpox claimed more than 300 million lives in the 20th century alone.

There were many frightening childhood diseases in the early 20th century, but polio likely topped this list. It struck mainly in summer months leading to periodic epidemics, paralyzing or killing thousands of children. With widespread vaccination, polio was virtually eliminated from the western hemisphere in 1994. I remember going to gymnasiums with my mother to drink the liquid vaccine.

We are again confronted with a highly contagious disease, which given time and people to infect, has the capacity to mutate and become more dangerous. We have science, technology, and the commitment of private industry that labored 24/7 to bring us highly effective and safe vaccines. We benefit from widespread access to the internet, which places inexhaustible information at our fingertips. But it is also a vehicle for misinformation, anecdotes, and personal agendas. Despite the volumes of confusing information, what is clear is that vaccines prevent disease and death.  Chicken pox, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, meningitis, and diphtheria – these are but some of the diseases we vaccinate our children against.

A balanced perspective must acknowledge that unknowns always remain, but it’s also important to identify what we do know. We know that while vaccinated individuals can still develop COVID-19, vaccines reduce the risk of infection astronomically, as well as reducing the risk of severe disease. We know the vaccines have rare side effects, but they pale in comparison to the death, disability, and devastation caused by COVID-19.  We know that when unvaccinated individuals get infected, the disease’s effects virtually always occur with much greater frequency and severity than the side effects of the vaccines.

We know it’s possible the next variant could be more deadly to our children who don’t yet have a vaccine available. And, most importantly, we know this virus will not be stopped until we are vaccinated.

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