Vaccines were developed for the purpose of protecting individuals and communities against devastating illnesses like whooping cough, polio, and measles.
The origins of vaccines as we know them today can be traced to the late 1700s when an English physician named Edward Jenner realised that milkmaids who contracted cowpox, didn’t contract smallpox.
Jenner decided to test his theory by inoculating a boy by rubbing cowpox puss (sorry) into a scratch on his arm.
Months later, he exposed the kid to smallpox a few times over the course of a few weeks, and the kid was fine. It was a lucky guess that could have been disastrous if it had gone wrong.
These days, we have systems in place to stop scientists experimenting randomly on children, but there have, nevertheless, been a few vaccines that were sent out too soon, with dire consequences – something that should be taken into account as the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine forges ahead.
Let’s take a look at a few of those with CNN:
Cutter Labs: Polio Vaccine
On April 12, 1955, the American government announced that the first-ever vaccine to protect kids against polio was ready for distribution.
One company, Cutter Labs, tasked with producing the vaccine, accidentally included live poliovirus in their product, causing an outbreak.
More than 200 000 children received the vaccine.
“Forty thousand kids got polio. Some had low levels, a couple hundred were left with paralysis, and about 10 died,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a paediatrician, distinguished professor, and director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.
The vaccination program was suspended until they figured out what went wrong.
Polio vaccine continued
Although Cutter Labs was eventually outed as the cause of the problem, increased oversight failed to pick up on a second issue.
From 1955 to 1963, between 10% and 30% of polio vaccines contained simian virus 40 (SV40).
Here’s medical anthropologist S. Lochlann Jain:
“The way they would grow the virus was on monkey tissues. These rhesus macaques were imported from India, tens of thousands of them.”
“They were gang caged and in those conditions, the ones that didn’t die on the journey, many got sick, and the viruses spread quickly.”
No current polio vaccines contain contaminates, and there’s no evidence that anyone was seriously harmed.
Vaccinate your children.
The pandemic that wasn’t a pandemic
In 1976, scientists believed that a new strain of influenza, ‘swine flu’, would lead to a pandemic.
“President Ford was basically told by his advisers, that look, we have a pandemic flu coming called swine flu that may be as bad as Spanish flu,” said Michael Kinch, a professor of radiation oncology in the school of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.
Ford was encouraged to put forward a vaccine, which was engineered too quickly. Ford then made immunisation compulsory, following which around 40 million people were vaccinated.
“Unfortunately, due to that vaccine, and the fact that it was done so hastily, there were a few hundred cases of Guillain-Barre, although it’s not definitive that they were linked,” Kinch said.
The government stopped the program to investigate. The swine flu pandemic never arrived.
For the most part, companies that produce vaccines are very careful about when they release them, following extensive clinical trials.
If you visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, you’ll find a number of cases of vaccines that have been recalled as a precaution, most of which didn’t do any damage to those who had been inoculated before the recall.
There is solid medical and scientific evidence that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks.
At the same time, it’s important not to rush the COVID-19 vaccine.
As much as we’d all like things to go back to normal, the cost is high if the vaccine is faulty.
Right now, your best defence is your mask.
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