Vaccines have kept us safe for generations

My earliest encounter with vaccines, and perhaps yours, was as a child. Polio had been ravaging the nation's children, many requiring "iron lungs," leg braces and crutches. In 1952, about 58,000 new cases and more than 3,000 deaths were reported in the U.S. Parents everywhere were terrified.

Dr. Jonas Salk, head of a research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, received a grant in 1948 to study the poliomyelitis virus and develop a vaccine using the killed virus. By 1950, he had an early version, and, on March 26, 1953, he announced on CBS Radio that he had successfully tested his vaccine. A mass vaccination effort began, with many of us receiving our shots in school.

Polio doesn't pose a threat anymore in the U.S., or the world. According to the World Health Organization, only two cases have been reported so far in 2021, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Taken as a whole, vaccines are credited with saving millions of lives and extending life spans.

It was five years between the time Salk received his grant and his announcement of an effective and safe vaccine. Compare that the speed with which today's researchers in Operation Warp Speed announced the development of vaccines against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Work began almost as soon as the virus was discovered, in January 2020, and by December Pfizer had received emergency authorization for its vaccine.

Now, just 18 months after the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the U.S., 64% of adults 18 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 53% are fully vaccinated. New cases and deaths have dropped precipitously. Even among the most vulnerable aging populations in nursing homes, cases and deaths are way down.

I can understand why some people are wary of vaccines that seemingly came out of nowhere. Is it safe? What are the long-term effects? But a lot has changed in the 70 years since the fight against polio, and the development of today's vaccines bears no resemblance to the processes used by Salk and his forbears.

Vaccines work by making your body develop an immune response to a virus. The history of immunology goes back hundreds of years, and initially involved small amounts of a live virus being used to inoculate against a disease. As far back as the 17th century, a Chinese emperor survived smallpox and had the resulting scabs scratched into his children's arms to inoculate them. Edward Jenner in the late 18th century became the "father of immunology" when he inoculated a boy against smallpox using cowpox blisters from a milkmaid.

That was then.

Today, vaccines don't need either weak or inactive disease-causing viruses, making them much safer than earlier vaccines. Rather, they use messenger RNA, or mRNA, to create proteins that generate the immune response. (This is RNA, not DNA, your genomic blueprint. Though related, they have different components, structure and functions.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mRNA vaccines "teach our cells how to make a protein - or even just a piece of a protein - that triggers an immune response inside our bodies." Do you recall the "spikes" that we saw in images of the coronavirus? COVID-19 mRNA vaccines "give instructions for our cells to make a harmless piece of what is called the 'spike protein.' "

And how did the vaccines come about so quickly? Technology is one answer. Genomic sequencing is easy and inexpensive in today's labs, and researchers from around the globe were able to easily collaborate on their findings.

But also, the groundwork for the COVID vaccine was laid a decade ago when virologists were studying the coronaviruses that cause SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome). "It's a 10-year (research and development) program just like any other vaccine," says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Triumphs like this make me proud to be in the business of providing medical guidance to people. I think you will see more mRNA vaccines being developed against other viruses, and what we've learned from the current pandemic may help stem the next one.

Armed with this understanding on how vaccines are developed these days, you are better able to make an informed decision about getting one of the COVID vaccines. I hope you will, so that we can put away our masks and leave this pandemic in our collective rearview mirror.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.

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