Soon you will be offered a vaccine. A few of you already have been; some of which have gladly accepted, others of whom have politely declined. And rightly so—your body, your choice. A strictly personal decision. Isn’t it?
The vaccine we are being offered has exceptionally high protective capacity against a virus that has infected over 159 million people and killed 3.3 million people. A virus that is mutating into new variants that are both deadlier and more infectious. Put like that, it seems a straightforward decision. But we have to consider the risk of side effects, the arguments of the vaccine-hesitant, and the information circulating on social media.
In 1750 England, life expectancy was around 35 years. Approximately 30% of the population was infected with smallpox and a third of those infected were dying. Imagine the atmosphere of grief and fear that hung in the air. 24 years later Benjamin Jesty, a small-town farmer, used a darning needle to infect his family with pus from a cow’s diseased udder in an attempt to protect his family from the pox.1 It worked, and soon enough the first ever vaccine began to be administered. People unsurprisingly scoffed at his odd discovery, and yet it soon came to be a lifeline for his country. I doubt I would have agreed to take that first vaccine from crazy-sounding-farmer Ben, and yet the desperation of wanting to evade the virus and ensure the safety of the community may have just convinced me. In hindsight, those that took a risk were indeed the most well protected.
Today we rarely hear of smallpox, and certainly don’t have a third of our population infected with it—that’s because it was the first disease ever eliminated globally due to the success of global vaccination programmes.2 The infection rate of diseases to come, depends on the success and vigilance of immunisation rates. We saw this particularly in 2018 when there was a 30% increase in measles cases worldwide. Health professionals attributed this outbreak to the growing anti-vaccine movement. That year, our global measles vaccination coverage stalled at about 85%, just 10% shy of what we call herd immunity (95% percent coverage is believed to be required to prevent outbreaks). Over one hundred thousand measles-related deaths occurred globally that year. Building herd immunity through vaccinations works.
Nearly 58% of US adults have already had at least one dose and 34% of the entire population is fully vaccinated (CDC).3 This has seen case numbers and deaths drop significantly.
Arresting Covid depends on herd immunity. Our parents and grandparents, those we know with underlying medical conditions, our friends who have asthma, those who are struggling with obesity—they are putting their faith in the rest of us to be vaccinated and create herd immunity. Covid can only be eradicated if we can contain its ability to mutate—which is again, dependent on herd immunity. We think too of our global brothers and sisters, in extremely disadvantaged contexts. By being vaccinated and contributing to herd immunity, we can help thwart future Covid variants from ever actualising or reaching global shores. This is a gift to our overseas whānau.
History will remember our decisions during this desperate time. Will we be remembered as a collective that fought for the lowliest, or as a group of bystanders that were fixated on the rights of self? That’s your choice.
This article is part 2 of 4, taking a look at our collective role in the vaccine choice. Part 3 covers the origins of vaccine hesitancy, and the divide among peoples today. This article was originally published by NZBMS and is re-published with permission.
Contributors: Alan Jamieson, edited by Kelly Enright
Alan is the general director of NZBMS and Kelly is their communications coordinator.