Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic—and especially since the development of the coronavirus vaccine—vaccines have been hotly debated on a global scale. Amongst all the noise, it’s easy to forget the longstanding history of vaccines as a highly effective disease prevention tool. We recently sat down with Christina Schwartz, PharmD, who is a licensed and practicing community pharmacist, to discuss the importance of vaccines prior to and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s easy as adults to forget the importance of vaccination for ourselves as our lives get busy,” says Schwartz. “We feel healthy and we tend to think of vaccines as being something exclusively for kids and older adults—this isn’t the case. In every stage of your life, it’s important to stay up-to-date on recommended immunizations.”
Vaccines in History – The Polio Epidemic
One of the best examples of the power of vaccines is the true story of the polio vaccine.
“Since the early 1900s, the United States had endured yearly polio epidemics that tragically left thousands dead and even more disabled,” explains Schwartz. “The scarier part is that every year, epidemics got worse and worse, and the outbreaks were unpredictable.
In 1952, the U.S. experienced its worst polio year yet, with nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, over 3,000 deaths and 21,000 left paralyzed. Most of the victims were children. An estimated 600,000 cases were reported worldwide that same year.
Parents became terrified of warm weather, calling it ‘polio weather.’ Consequently, they kept children out of pools, away from large gatherings, and curtailed their daily activities. Sometimes, they would even send off their children to live with relatives in other countries. Summer wasn’t fun—it was terrifying.
Fortunately, a polio vaccine became available in 1955. The results are evident in the fact that today, we no longer have to worry about ‘polio weather.’ We enjoy our summers and get to watch our children play in the pool for hours on end. We have no worries they may become paralyzed by a virus that we can’t even see. As a result of the polio vaccine, the disease was eliminated from the United States in 1979 and from the Western Hemisphere by 1994.”
As Schwartz goes on to explain, currently there is no known cure for polio—making vaccination the best prevention measure we have. Once a global epidemic, polio has been eradicated in all but two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan since the development of the polio vaccine.
“Until poliovirus transmission ceases to exist in these countries, all countries remain at risk,” adds Schwartz. “This is why vaccination is so important. Even if we don’t see a disease every day, it’s because of the power of vaccines! As the saying goes, ‘Polio is only a plane trip away, no passport required.’”
Vaccine Safety & Testing Process
The vaccine testing and approval process is a complex and rigorous process that all vaccines must go through in order to be approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Rest assured, available vaccines in the U.S. have been tested rigorously to ensure that they meet the strictest of safety standards.
“Vaccines must meet the FDA’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, efficacy and manufacturing quality in order to be fully approved here in the U.S., or to gain Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), as was the case with available COVID-19 vaccines,” says Schwartz. “Beyond the testing and approval process, there are several vaccine safety monitoring systems in place to serve as an early warning system by monitoring any reported adverse events that happen after vaccination that may not have been seen in clinical trials.
With the introduction of the new COVID-19 vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mounted the most intensive vaccine monitoring effort in U.S. history to-date to ensure that all aspects of the vaccine can continue to be monitored post vaccination.”
For more information about the vaccine development and approval process, click here.
Why You Should Follow Routine Vaccine Schedules
“Vaccine schedules were designed to provide the best protection for infants and young children early in life when they are the most vulnerable,” says Schwartz. “Delaying vaccines could leave your children vulnerable to disease when they are most likely to have serious complications. If children aren’t vaccinated, they can spread disease to other children who are too young to be vaccinated or to people with weakened immune systems.”
Vaccines for Children Program (VFC)
No matter what your background or economic status is, programs like the federally-funded Vaccines for Children Program (VFC) make it possible—and affordable—to vaccinate your children. VFC is a program operated by the CDC that provides routine vaccines free of charge for children through 18 years of age based on financial need.
Included among participating VFC Program providers are private doctors and clinics, hospitals, public health clinics, community health clinics and schools. Generally, most pediatricians are VFC Program providers, as well as many family practice providers and general practitioners. The VFC Program provides eligible children with immunizations recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). To learn more about the VFC Program, click here.
Immunizations Before & Beyond the COVID-19 Vaccine
As is the case with polio, it’s easy to take vaccines for granted. That’s because they work so well, we often forget the pandemics, epidemics and outbreaks of the past that, ultimately, vaccines brought to a halt.
“Vaccines prevent serious diseases and save lives,” says Schwartz. “They are truly one of the greatest gifts to mankind. Because of vaccinations, diseases that used to be common—such as polio, tetanus, measles and mumps—aren’t really visible these days. But we need to remember that bacteria and viruses can still cause them to exist and even cause future outbreaks, which is why keeping up with immunizations is so important.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all aspects of our lives, and has highlighted the importance of what vaccines can do,” she adds. “Without vaccines, the world we live in today wouldn’t exist.
Although we are living through tough times with the current pandemic, we’re lucky in the U.S. that we don’t have to think about other serious diseases, like polio, to contend with. But, it’s important to be mindful that these illnesses still exist and are prevalent in other parts of the world.”
“Ask your healthcare provider questions, stay informed, educate yourself using reliable, scientific resources and make the commitment for a healthier future,” says Schwartz. “Please get vaccinated if you can.”