We're a little crazy, about science!

On the importance of vaccines

Once upon a time polio was more feared than the atomic bomb. Thanks to the vaccine we’ve practically (not completely mind you!) eliminated polio from the planet. We successfully eliminated smallpox, the only existing strains live in special labs now. Vaccines are a triumph of science and are so successful that people have forgotten they are necessary for a reason. In short, vaccine fear is a byproduct of vaccine success.

We are at war, but we don’t see it. Viruses want to spread and with a lucky mutation they can, in some cases, jump to humans. Remember the bird flu scare? We got lucky, there was worry that a errant mutation could cause the virus to jump to humans. That caution caused a whole lot of people to question why we were scared, even if it was the right call. It’s better to be safe than to have… well the mess we have now with ~300,000 people dead and ~3000 people dying daily now.

You may be asking yourself, how did we get here? Well for polio the story begins with Dr. Jonas Salk, a lot of science, and a whole lot of luck. Now to be fair Dr. Salk was the face of the team that was behind the polio vaccine, it was a group effort and was as close to magic as science can be (more on Salk). He famously did not seek to patent the vaccine, instead giving it to the people and while there is some controversy around the choice and if he could even patent it, even if it was just PR, I’m okay with it. Polio was for all intents and purposes eradicated here in the US shortly after the vaccine program started.

Now eagle eyed people will notice that the rates were dropping prior to the introduction, so how do we know it worked? Well they stayed down, look at the variance between years, statistically speaking if the vaccine was a failure we would’ve seen an increase eventually. Instead we don’t see cases of polio here in the US anymore because we still routinely vaccinate for it (more on the polio timeline) Measles on the other hand has made a stunning return thanks to one scientist who was more interested in money than helping people (more).

Enter Andrew Wakefield to the picture. In 1998 Wakefield released a study claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism, it doesn’t (more reading)(even more)(still more)(no really it doesn’t). Wakefield took money from a company who was producing an alternative MMR vaccine and was told to create a study that linked SOMETHING to the current MMR vaccine (seriously). At the end of the day this was about money and instead it coalesced a whole movement that now spreads fear and misinformation on vaccines (more). The movement didn’t start with Wakefield, but he helped it explode and that has caused uncountable damage in our hidden war with viruses.

The problem is mutation. You mutate, I mutate, everyone and everything alive mutates. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that leads to things like cancers. It also causes new and scary viruses. Mutation works a whole lot faster in viruses than in something like a person. That’s because every copy of the virus gives a small chance for mutation. These mutations are random, but even random mutations can lead to devastating consequences, like the COVID-19 variant. Everytime a virus enters a cell it can reproduce anywhere from dozens of times to tens of thousands of times (source). This process happens fast too, each infected cell can rupture and release all those copies within hours or sometimes days after infection (source). This is once again (unfortunately) an exponential growth model.

These mutations are why we need a new flu shot every year. It’s also why the polio vaccine is slowly becoming non-effective, which I’ve written about before (more). Which leads me to the point of this writing, COVID-19. The virus is mutating, we know there are now several different strands of the virus and some are more virulent than others. Those mutations can cause the vaccine to be less effective, or the worst case scenario, totally ineffective. Sure the death rate is hovering at “only” ~2% now (which has been devastating for anyone who cares about others), but that’s the current virus, not a more deadly mutant variant that will surely come if we leave this to chance. The worst part is a more deadly version may still be just as infective and a host could be contagious for weeks before getting sick.

COVID-19’s full name is SARS-COV-2. You may remember its cousin SARS-COV-1, which was very deadly, but people who were infected showed signs right away so we never had the pandemic we have now (more). The virus we are dealing with now was bound to happen, we knew it was coming, whole movies have been made about this exact scenario happening with bats because certain bat populations carry high SARS loads. Which guess what? aAbat was probably the thing that spread SARS-COV-2 to an unlucky human. To be clear, this was a nature issue not a country issue, the flu of 1918 (often misconstrued as the “spanish” flu) more than likely started here in the US. These things happen regardless of country, it’s just natures war that by virtue of birth we are now fighting too.

Vaccines are our greatest weapon in this war. Frankly, it’s one of our only weapons since people seem to refuse to change their behaviors even after the death toll keeps climbing. While I suspect that there will be pockets of individuals who will abstain from the vaccine due to misinformation or just plain old fashioned ignorance, I’m hopeful that we can finally come together and do something for the greater good. Every time the virus infects someone, there is one more chance for the virus to mutate into something that circumvents the vaccine. Some of you have already refused to wear a mask, or to social distance, for the sake of the people around you, the people you love, and the people who love you, get the vaccine. It’s only going to work if we all do this together.

TL;DR – Vaccines work, viruses mutate, if you don’t get vaccinated you’re just giving the virus one more chance to mutate into something the current vaccine won’t be able to stop. If you don’t do your part, you may not have pulled a physical trigger, but that doesn’t make you any less responsible for the death count.


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