We have made huge progress from the early days of Jenner and his cowpox pustules to the latest high-tech vaccine development platforms. Today, vaccines save millions of lives around the world every year, and prevent many more people from suffering debilitating diseases, but there is much more that can be achieved as long as the current momentum is sustained.
There are high hopes that we might soon be able to eradicate diseases like polio, rubella and measles with the vaccines we already have. Ensuring truly global access to immunisation programmes would make a big difference to child mortality in some of the poorest and most unstable parts of the world. However, this is heavily dependent on political willpower, funding for vaccine delivery and access to healthcare.
There have also been notable recent successes with novel vaccines against diseases such as Ebola and typhoid, with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) coming close behind. At the moment there is an impressive global effort going towards finding vaccines that can provide protection against SARSCoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
The reliability and effectiveness of vaccines means that they easily can be taken for granted as a public health intervention. Many vaccine-preventable diseases are little more than distant memories in wealthier countries, and it can be particularly hard to maintain vaccination rates when the prevalence of a disease is low. A decrease in vaccine uptake has allowed once rare diseases to re-emerge within the UK, as we have seen with measles recently, and which led the UK to lose its WHO ‘measles free’ status in August 2019. Public engagement therefore plays a vital role in maintaining the life-saving reputation of vaccines, as well as ensuring support and funding for future research.
One thing is clear: vaccines transform societies all over the world. Only clean drinking water is a more effective public health measure. Preventing children from dying from infectious diseases, suffering long-term side effects or missing school due to illness helps to build a healthy, educated population. In turn, this decreases the emotional, practical and financial burden on families, significantly reducing individual and national healthcare costs.
The COVID-19 pandemic teaches us that protecting against infectious diseases isn’t just about defending health and saving lives: it’s about the global economy, freedom and security. We all need to pull together - the health of the world is at stake. - Professor Andrew Pollard, University of Oxford
However, the opposite is also true. New pathogens can quickly spread through our interconnected world, rapidly destabilising society with dramatic personal, economic and political impacts. We must learn to work smarter and faster, gathering data on outbreaks as they spread, analysing the genetic makeup of pathogens and immune responses, and bringing new vaccines into clinical trials as quickly as possible. UK researchers are standing shoulder to shoulder with our international colleagues to address these challenges and protect the health of the world.