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Baffoe-Bonnie: Vaccines -- Our Lines of Defense Against the Numbers that Spell Disease

Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie headshot

Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, MD,  is Medical Director of Carilion Clinic Infection Prevention and Control

Consider this 21st Century fact. We live and breathe and are protected against many illnesses thanks to the miracle of immunity against disease. Most doctors have never treated individuals paralyzed by polio, infected by smallpox, or affected by measles.  These are miraculous achievements made possible by vaccines.

Since Edward Jenner successfully created immunity to smallpox in 1796, vaccines have been among the most beneficial scientific advances in history. It’s been 72 years since America experienced a natural case of smallpox. Consider this proof that vaccines remain one of humankind’s most potent lines of defense for preventing suffering from biological threats to our bodies.

Encouraging and delivering immunizations didn’t start with COVID-19’s threats. We’ve almost forgotten about familiar and unfamiliar diseases because vaccines have eliminated them. The ultimate difference-maker is at the root of immunizations – immunity from severe and potentially life-threatening sicknesses. It starts from birth.

Have you ever experienced muscle stiffness and lockjaw caused by tetanus or had pertussis, better known as whooping cough? Not if you received the DTaP vaccine.  It protects expectant mothers and their babies against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Children then receive DTaP boosters several times from birth through age six, and the boosters should then be scheduled every ten years of life. Since diphtheria vaccines were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s and universal childhood immunizations began in the late 1940s, diphtheria has been well-controlled and rarely reported in the United States.

Similarly, the polio vaccine was invented in 1955 and is now one of the required childhood vaccines. Since 1979, no case of polio that left our children crippled has originated in the United States.

The measles vaccine was introduced in the U.S. in 1963. By 2000, America declared measles eliminated.  Today, the MMR vaccine is a miraculous three-for, protecting against the bodily splotches of measles, the painful swollen salivary glands of mumps, and rubella’s distinctive red rash.

Chickenpox vaccines began in 1995. Since then, the vaccines have prevented millions of cases of the highly contagious disease’s itchy skin bumps and high fever. By extension, if you had chickenpox as a youngster and are now 50 or older, you can avoid the painful, striped blisters of shingles with the zoster vaccine, first developed in the early 2000s.

Heard of the advances to shield us from some throat, cervical and anal cancers? Thank the immunity offered by the vaccine for human papillomavirus.

For schoolchildren, immunizations are required for admission.  From childhood through adolescence, immunizations build our defenses. Children can attend school without concerns about spreading disease. Age, job, lifestyle, travel and health conditions determine if a vaccine helps us avoid catching diseases as we grow older. Want to travel internationally? Your local infectious diseases physician can immunize you against typhoid fever, yellow fever or rabies, which still exist around the globe.

And let’s not forget influenza. Since flu season is now upon us, it’s worth mentioning that you can safely receive the flu vaccine if you’ve had the COVID-19 vaccine. Like the COVID vaccine, the flu vaccine may not prevent you from getting the virus, but you are less likely to have severe illness, and that’s the goal.

For almost two years, we’ve encouraged good hygiene – wash your hands, wear masks and avoid large gatherings, especially in indoor or poorly ventilated settings – to protect yourselves from COVID-19’s devastation. Once vaccines arrived and boosters followed, we urged everyone to be vaccinated and boosted to minimize the risk of contracting and spreading the disease and significantly limit the likelihood of severe disease landing us in the hospital or on a breathing machine. We’re doing this for ourselves, our loved ones and our community.

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and they’re a shining example of human ingenuity and scientific discovery.  

“Thank you!” to the many of you who have taken steps to get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a credible source for up-to-date vaccine information. If you’re still on the fence about the usefulness of vaccines, contact your health care provider. They can talk you through your unique situation and reinforce the facts based on clinical studies and medicine.