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Let’s have more faith in the science of vaccines

Jonas Salk perfected a vaccine for polio in 1952

I was recently surprised by the extent of scepticism in the local community regarding vaccinations and mask-wearing in addressing Covid-19.

I grew up in the 1950s when a vaccination scar on your arm was a badge of honour. Both of my paternal grandfather’s parents — living at a time of limited health promotion — had died young, resulting in his adoption by the Ratteray family and my paternal grandmother had died when my dad was only 5. That background reality contributed to a keen sense of the importance of public health.

That sense was reinforced through my maternal grandmother’s work with the grassroots Hamilton Parish Nursing Association, which hired nurse Caro Spenser, overcoming racial barriers and fostering community health — including vaccinations.

That said, “truth decay” is taking hold via social media at present. With the “Tweeter in Charge” (President Donald Trump) fostering chaos, it’s not surprising that substantial numbers of people are buying into hyper-cynicism.

Of course, Bermuda is overly influenced by American culture, where healthcare has been in crisis for the past few decades. So much so that America’s health costs per capita are twice that of other developed countries such as Canada and Europe where healthcare is a basic right. In America’s hyper-capitalist model of healthcare — controlled of “Big Pharma” et al — cynicism thrives. As do poorer outcomes.

Hence, you have the claim that requirements to socially distance and wear a mask undermine basic human rights.

Vaccinations to protect individuals and communities from viral diseases have a long history. Smallpox is one of the most virulent pathogens in human history, with evidence that Ramses V of Egypt died from that infection in 1157BC — more than 3,000 years ago.

Clear evidence shows that the principles of vaccination were pioneered, separately, both in Africa and China, long before Europe. There are written accounts from 16th-century Chinese publications. In Boston in 1706, the academic Cotton Mather uncovered that numerous enslaved Africans had been inoculated in their homeland, which protected them from being infected by smallpox. This discovery went viral, leading to an informal practice of inoculation in America.

In 1796, Edward Jenner began a project using neutral cowpox viruses to inoculate people, sparking their bodies’ normal immune system to offer long-term protection against the smallpox virus. His controversial scientific work was eventually accepted by his peers in America and subsequently employed on both sides of the Atlantic.

With the gradual improvement of vaccine science, by 1949 the US had eliminated smallpox. From 1967 through the late 1970s, the World Health Organisation led a campaign that eliminated smallpox globally.

In 1952, Jonas Salk, of the University of Pittsburgh, perfected a vaccine for polio, which had caused death and disability in hundreds of thousands of children. Salk ensured that the vaccine was made freely available across the globe, in the spirit of supporting the idea of healthcare as a basic human right.

He demonstrated a concern for “We” rather than just “Me”.

That same spirit was evident in postwar Bermuda, which spoke both to health and social welfare.

Gladys Morrel, known for her advocacy for women’s rights, collaborated in pioneering a parish nursing system. The work of Eustace Cann and E.F. Gordon in the 1940s promoted health and social progress in what was then a regressive island society. Barbara Ball lived out that same spirit in the 1960s and beyond.

In 2020, we are all called to reflect on ways we can continue that same spirit as we negotiate the new challenges of these times.

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Published December 16, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 15, 2020 at 1:16 pm)

Let’s have more faith in the science of vaccines

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