Vaccines are great. They are arguably one of the most important public health tools of the last century.
About 1,000 years ago, the Chinese came up with the first early inoculation process. Six centuries later, Europeans tried to develop one against smallpox. Today, they are in widespread use. Measles, mumps, chickenpox, yellow fever, typhoid fever and many other once crippling diseases are virtually non-issues in much of the developed world.
The value of vaccination, as a concept, is impossible to ignore.
The current Ebola outbreak in Africa provides a case in point. There is no vaccine for Ebola or even much in the way of drugs that target the specific disease. Although it has been generally contained in most places, an outbreak can wreak havoc on entire countries. The disease can kill indiscriminately. Short of staying away from the virus, we have no defence. And, because we are all interconnected, no place is safe. Sergio Held made this point when he looked at what Asia is doing to protect itself from a virus that is 12,000 miles away.
But there are many who fear vaccines and, in fairness, they often have reason to. Since May, more than 100 young women have fallen ill in a tropical seaside town in Colombia. Nobody knows for sure why but there are strong indications of a link between their ill-health and a vaccination they have received against HPV – the human papilloma virus – which can lead to cervical cancer.
The story has been mostly overlooked by media outside the country. A story in biotech magazine BioWorld (paywall) explains what happened. Bioworld has also provided some fantastic coverage of efforts to control Ebola. As it turns out, efforts to develop an Ebola vaccine have been held back by a lack of funding for long and expensive trials.
(It is more difficult to put a vaccine through trials than to test a different type of drug because researchers have to track patients over longer periods of time and prove that the vaccines prevent them from contracting a disease. In effect, they have to prove a negative.)
Funding for vaccines is, slowly, coming back but the need is great for more products. Yes, there will be problems with vaccines from time to time. There are, after all, billions of shots given out every year. The case in Colombia is on point. Since 2006, more than 160 million doses have been distributed of the same vaccine that may have had a negative effect on the 100 women in Colombia.