Anti-vax Reversal?

Even diseases with proven vaccines, like polio and measles, may be slated for a post-COVID resurgence.

We are in the middle of a pandemic, and many things have changed. One change is that public events are no longer happening. Gatherings and activities that increase contact among people are shut down, and that means some health initiatives have been shut down too.

I have talked before about the efforts to eradicate various diseases that have long been scourges of humanity. Because of COVID-19, campaigns to reduce and eliminate polio, measles and other contagious illnesses have stopped. It is ironic that, as we all pray for and strive to find a vaccine against COVID-19, vaccinations against other diseases are being scaled back. The concern is that door-to-door campaigns against these other diseases will spread COVID-19.

For three decades, we have engaged in a war to defeat polio, with great success. There have been problems in war zones like Afghanistan, and there are some outbreaks in Africa, but mass inoculation has been working. These efforts, which ultimately could break the cycle of this disease, were halted on March 24 because of concerns that reaching over 400 million individuals with a polio vaccine would also unleash a massive increase in the spread of COVID-19. 

Currently, we have no drugs or vaccines for COVID-19. It is unclear how long the suspension of our polio campaign will be maintained, but the setback to this and other vaccination efforts could make it challenging to defeat polio in our lifetime. And we were so close.

Herd immunity
Similarly, attempts to reduce the incidence of measles by mass campaigns have stopped. The frequency of measles had already increased, even in developed countries, because of the misguided and wrong efforts of the antivaccine movement. Measles has a phenomenal ability to spread, and to provide herd immunity and prevent its spread over 95 percent of the population must be vaccinated. As some people have medical conditions that make it impossible for them to receive the vaccine, having the rest of us vaccinated is good for all.

Vaccines work by causing our immune system to develop antibodies. The trick is to make a harmless version of a disease that still induces the body to initiate its immune response. Once the body has learned about this harmless version of a disease, it can mobilize a rapid response to the disease-causing agent, and so prevent the disease from occurring (and spreading). Researchers are rushing to make a harmless model of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

But vaccines can be very finicky. Some need to be kept frozen till used, and others have a short shelf life. Vaccination sometimes does not last for a lifetime and requires a booster. Developing an ideal vaccine is an art. These issues mean that while vaccines are easily administered in countries with highly developed health-care systems, they are challenging to use in less developed areas.

For diseases like polio and measles, we have effective vaccines, and it is heartbreaking to see the work of many to fight these ancient scourges delayed by this new sickness. We can only pray that any delay in these efforts will be short and that we can track where our efforts are needed most once the campaigns can start again.

The spread of COVID-19 has shown us how quickly a disease appearing in one part of the world can engulf us all. This speed is one of the fears that motivates people involved in campaigns to eradicate polio and other infectious diseases; occurrences in remote parts of the world may impact us all.

While as Christians we all pray for relief from COVID-19, one thing we can and should do is make sure our immunizations are up to date. Maybe COVID-19 will finally put an end to the antivax movement and cause us to act out of love for our neighbour by being inoculated.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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