Time was, nobody quarreled with the idea of a new vaccine. In 1955, church bells rang and headlines blared when Jonas Salk announced that his new vaccine against polio was safe, effective and powerful. Similar, if more subdued, enthusiasm greeted the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963 and the global eradication of smallpox in 1980. But we live in a more suspicious and cynical time.
Even as the world has desperately awaited the development of the recently introduced COVID-19 vaccines, only 70% of Americans say they will take them, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Fewer than half of Americans receive seasonal flu vaccines and vaccination rates for routine childhood diseases have long been below the 95% level that epidemiologists consider ideal. Part of this is due to the storm of misinformation spread by the anti-vaccine community. Part of is due to the very success of vaccines: people who have never seen a case of measles can get lax about being vaccinated against it. In the case of COVID-19, the concerns are also due to fears that the vaccine was developed too quickly, without sufficient safeguards—concerns that expert bodies like the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention insist are without merit. The speed with which the vaccines were developed notwithstanding, they have had to clear all of the Phase 1 through 3 trials and safety and efficacy reviews that established vaccines went through.
The power of vaccines is their ability to make many diseases optional diseases—ones we never have to suffer if we are wise enough to accept the gift of immunization. We are all blameless when a plague descends, but we all have a role in ending it.