Vaccines - A history of saving lives

Child Vaccination

At 10 years old, Thembalethu Magugu (pseudonym) lost his ability to walk properly because he did not receive a polio vaccine. Born in small village in 1979 in a small village of Mmusong, Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape, South Africa his parents did not understand the importance of vaccinations. Neither did his community.

“Due to the lack of knowledge of the diseases, community members from my village blamed witchcraft for my disability.”

Fortunately, he recovered and learned to walk with crutches. Many were not as fortunate to live to tell the tale. This motivated him to become an advocate for vaccination.

“The story of how vaccines save lives is important to tell, now more than ever,” Magugu said.

Today, Magugu works with community leaders and healthcare outreach programmes sharing his polio story in hopes to save lives by encouraging parents to vaccinate their children.


Importance of vaccines

Arguably, vaccinations have revolutionised global health and prevented the deaths of millions of people. In fact, each year they prevent as many as 3 million deaths worldwide. Hailed as the single most life-saving innovation in the history of medicine, vaccines have:

  • eradicated smallpox, polio,
  • reduced child mortality rates and
  • prevented lifelong disabilities.  

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Africa wild poliovirus free on 25 August 2020 – there are still cases of the vaccine-derived poliovirus, a rare form of the virus that can occur because of mutations in the oral polio vaccine. But, vaccine-derived polio is considered to be much less of a threat to public health than wild polio.

Arguably, vaccinations have revolutionized global health, preventing the death of millions of people. It has also been hailed as the single most life-saving innovation in the history of medicine, vaccines have eradicated smallpox, polio, reduced child mortality rates and prevented lifelong disabilities.  

Vaccines have been proven to be effective and safe, regardless of some individuals and groups’ anti-vaccine opinions. It prevents as many as 3 million deaths around the world each year. World Health Organization (WHO) has called vaccines the single most cost-effective health prevention. Since 1990, vaccines have contributed to a 58% decrease in the deaths of children under five.


What are vaccines and how do they work?

A vaccine is a biological product that produces an immune response against a specific bacteria or virus. It trains and prepares the body’s natural defences --- the immune system--- to recognize and fight off the viruses and bacteria they target. If the body is exposed to those disease-causing germs later, the body is immediately ready to destroy them, preventing illness.

The antibody response is usually specific to individual germs, hence the need for different types of vaccines.

When a person is made immune or resistant to an infectious disease, typically by the administration of a vaccine, the process is known as immunisation.

In this current pandemic, there are currently more than 50 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in trials. WHO is working in collaboration with scientists, business, and global health organizations through the ACT Accelerator to speed up the pandemic response.


How are vaccines made?

One way is by using either a weakened or attenuated (reduced) version of the germ, for example oral polio virus, that has limited ability to replicate or cause illness.

Another approach is to use an inactivated version of the targeted vaccine, for example, the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. 
More common approaches include using only a specific target (antigen) of the germ, which can also target the immune response to neutralize the germ. These antigens are sometimes coupled with another chemical compound, an ‘adjuvant’, to enable a more robust immune response.

Newer technologies include using weakened viruses that cause mild or no illness, and that are engineered, or technology that involves directly injecting the genetic material (messenger RNA or DNA) that codes for the antigen.


How is the research and development process being accelerated without compromising safety? 

In the past, vaccines have been developed through a series of steps that can take many years. Now, given the urgent need for COVID-19 vaccines, unprecedented financial investments and scientific collaborations are changing how vaccines are developed.

This means that some of the steps in the research and development process have been happening in parallel, while still maintaining strict clinical and safety standards. For example, some clinical trials are evaluating multiple vaccines at the same time. However, this does not make the studies any less rigorous.

WHO and its partners are committed to accelerating the development of COVID-19 vaccines while maintaining the highest standards on safety.


Which diseases have vaccines eradicated?

  • Polio - First introduced on February 23, 1954
  • Tetanus - First introduced in 1890
  • The Flue (Influenza) - First introduced in 1937
  • Hepatitis B - First introduced in 1981
  • Hepatitis A - First introduced in 1991
  • Rubella - First introduced in 1970
  • Hib (Haemophilius influenza type b) - First introduced in 1985
  • Measles - First introduced in 1963
  • Whooping Cough - First introduced in 1942
  • Pneumococcal Diseases - First introduced in the early 1900’s
  • Rotavirus - First introduced in 1998
  • Mumps - First introduced in 1967
  • Chickenpox - First introduced in 1984
  • Diphtheria - First introduced in 1923
The beginning of the vaccination programme suggests that the end is in sight as South Africa received its first batch of the 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India on 1 February 2021. 
The country has so far secured around 12 million doses from the COVAX vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the WHO, 12 million from an African Union arrangement, and 9 million from Johnson & Johnson.
While more vaccines are being developed to combat diseases like the COVID-19, it is now more than ever important to stop the pandemic by using all the tools we have:
  • Wearing of face masks
  • Washing of hands or using hand sanitizers
  • Practicing a 1.5 meter social distancing
  • Avoiding attendance of large gatherings
  • Vaccination is the most important thing we can do to protect ourselves and our children against ill-health. 
By Kelebohile Sedieane | source: CDC, Wits and WHO