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Vaccines: 'They're one of the greatest public health achievements of all time'

Posted at 5:12 PM, Dec 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 19:22:06-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Vaccines have a long history of protecting people from diseases, and in some cases, eliminating diseases altogether.

The first successful vaccine, created for smallpox, was introduced in 1796. Caused by the variola virus, smallpox killed 30 percent of people who contracted the virus, until the vaccine eradicated the disease.

Since then, vaccines have been used to protect people from diseases like polio, rubella and tetanus.

Dr. Kevin Ault is a an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Kansas Health System. He's studied viruses for 25 years, including the vaccine for humanpapillomavirus (HPV).

"Cervical cancer has historically been one of our biggest problems in women's health," Ault said. "We've turned back the clock a century."

Several diseases that were once prevalent are no longer a major public health concern because of vaccines.

Hepatitis B used to infect 10,000 to 15,000 babies every year, Ault said. The disease can cause major health issues, like cancer.

"That's in the single digits," Ault said. "That vaccine had been 99 percent effective in that age group."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thousands of people died from measles before a vaccine was created in 1963. In 2000, the disease was considered eliminated.

"We had millions of cases of measles every year in the 60s, and then ya know again, a 90 percent decrease," Ault said.

Only a few vaccines have been recalled, according to the CDC. Most of them were pulled by the manufacturers before any injuries were reported.

Ault points out one case where the rotovirus vaccine was recalled in 1999.

"We found those effects within a month or two in the rollout through the systems that are in place now," Ault said. "I think we have a way to find problems pretty quickly."

With researchers preparing to release a vaccine for COVID-19, many people wonder if it's safe.

Drug makers, Pfizer and Moderna, report a 95 percent effective rate with the vaccines. Only minor symptoms have been reported within the group that received the vaccine. Some of the symptoms include a headache, sore arm and a fever.

Despite a history of being safe and effective, vaccination rates have declined over the years. Charlie Hunt, with the Kansas Health Institute, said the decrease in vaccinations is the result of misinformation.

"They're one of the greatest public health achievements of all time," Hunt said.

There are people, who for medical reasons cannot get vaccinated, Hunt said. In order to protect them and the community, Hunt said it's important that people who can safely vaccinate, do so.

Roughly 70 percent of a population needs to be exposed to a virus in order for herd immunity to be achieved, according to most infectious disease experts. If herd immunity is achieved through a vaccine, as opposed to community spread, less people will die.

"Our hope is that people will listen to the right sources of information information about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines when the vaccines become available," Hunt said.

The COVID-19 vaccine trials will last for two years. However, symptoms are reported and tracked by the CDC continuously, Ault said.

Adverse events from a vaccine usually occur within the first couple weeks of receiving the injection. Ault said the biggest myth surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines is that the process was "rushed."

"They're not rushed - I think expedited would be a much better word," Ault said. "We're going through all the steps, the investigators and the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta are going through all the usual steps we do for any vaccine."