Vaccinations have doubled the life expectancy of humans in just 100 years, but the sense of security they have afforded modern-day civilizations from deadly diseases has inadvertently molded populations that have forgotten the vital role vaccines play in preventing major health catastrophes.
That's according to the newest episode of Vanderbilt Health DNA, where top infectious disease experts, immunologists and pediatricians from Vanderbilt University Medical Center discuss the role vaccines play in society.
“If we didn’t have vaccines, we’d be back to about 1800, I think,” said Buddy Creech, director of Vanderbilt's Vaccine Research Program and associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases. “And people romanticize the idea, but in 1800 the average life span was about 35 years old, so we don’t want to go back there.”
The nation’s aptitude to forgetting this history has raised contentious debates about the efficacy and use of vaccines in modern medicine. Those threaten to erode public health safety nets and put vulnerable populations at-risk to re-emerging diseases. This goes for the COVID-19 public health crisis the world finds itself in now; the only end in sight relies not only on the development of an effective vaccine, but also on people actually taking it.
Widespread distrust of and misinformation surrounding vaccines concerns immunologists and pediatricians deeply, Creech said, because it could unhinge decades of work eradicating diseases and impede on new research working to prevent new illnesses from arising. To combat the skepticism, scientists have worked to build up a public health infrastructure and vaccine development system based on hard-lined safety standards and data.
The rigorous testing includes research in labs across the nation, animal testing, then varying human clinical trials where symptoms and adverse effects are monitored through databases filled with individual reports, clinical notes and electronic health records to evaluate the long-term implications of each vaccine.
“That gives me a lot of confidence now when I take my daughter, or my son, or my youngest daughter to get shots,” Creech said. “I have a lot of confidence that what we are doing is backed up by years of data and by millions of data points. That gives me a lot of confidence in our system.”
Investing in vaccine research may increase the likelihood of preventing diseases like COVID-19 from becoming pandemics in the first place, said James Crowe, Vanderbilt Vaccine Center Director and professor of pediatrics, pathology, microbiology and immunology. Research programs across the world dedicate their time and resources to identifying viruses, bacteria and other organisms that cause disease in humans, and work to create vaccines and treatments in preparation for potential outbreaks. This level of preparation has allowed public health officials to keep outbreaks from spreading across the globe but requires constant, if not growing, funding of the world's public health infrastructure — a mandate not frequently fulfilled in United States budget-making.
“As a people, we do not have the will to commit to doing things ahead of time. I think we tend to be reactive and wait for the pandemic to occur,” Crowe said. “One thing we should discuss once this is all over is, 'Should we put more resources and time into things that have not yet happened?' I think of this in terms of a fire analogy: You can build great fire trucks and go put out the fire out, but wouldn’t it be better to have fire alarms and smoke detectors in your house to snuff it out and think about it ahead of time?”
All in all, Vanderbilt University’s William Schaffner, a professor in preventative medicine and infectious diseases, said the development of vaccines and their processes were the greatest triumph of 20th-century medicine, effectively reducing — if not eradicating — some of the greatest threats to humankind, including polio, measles and smallpox.
“There is no other aspect of medicine where we have eradicated one of the great scourges of mankind,” Schaffner said. “Prevention is medicine’s highest goal.”