The Summer of Vaccines

Since I have come home from the World Health Assembly, vaccines have been on my mind. They have been on my mind so much that it has been impossible to think about anything else in a considered enough fashion to be able to write about it. I have been reading books about vaccines and vaccination, but I have more material than one short, pithy blog and, as well, I find that I want more information. It was the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) itself and the World Health Assembly in May that started me thinking about vaccines, so let me begin this summer series by telling you about that.

There is something about the World Health Organization Headquarters that  guards against infectious disease, that reminds me of immunization and sterile environments. It starts in the expansive front lobby of the main headquarters building with its expansive, white marble slabs, crisply laid into floors and wide steps so that dirt cannot hide and on which every speck of dust would glare from its pristine surface. “Clean me!” it screams at the end of a rainy day when mud has been tracked over the glistening expanse. From the ceiling of the foyer hang the 194 flags of member nations. Row upon row, they form a symbolic banner saluting the collective intention to make a healthier world and keep it healthy.

Outside of W.H.O. Headquarters, on the main lawn are two statues. The oldest shows a child leading a man, who is blind, a victim of river blindness. The statue honours the efforts of the W.H.O., Private Corporations, Non-governmental organizations and health care providers who have virtually eradicated this disease through a combination of judicious insecticide use and vigilant treatment. The treatment with the drug invermectin must be undertaken for fourteen  years, the length of time the worm/parasite can live in the human body.

The second statue, cast in bronze and stone, depicts a girl about to be vaccinated. The other three figures represent the health care professionals, community leaders and agencies who have supported the efforts to eradicate smallpox. This statue was erected in May 2010, on the 30th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox.

The prevention and treatment of infectious disease are among the greatest successes of medicine. In fact, medicine’s most important acts are either large or small. The small measures are the day to day care provided by health care workers to the sick or injured, the individual comforts for which individual doctors or nurses are so highly prized. The large scale measures are public health successes, like vaccines or the treatment for a debilitating disease. Normally, when I write, I focus on the small measures related to patient care but this summer, as a means to learn more about vaccines and public health, I will consider the large scale successes of health care.

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