Monday, November 22, 2010

Vale Frank Fenner

Frank Fenner has died aged 95. Who, you may ask, was Frank Fenner? Among other things, he worked on, and announced the eradication of small pox. Immunisation has changed our world, and the eradication of small pox is one of its great achievements. In honour of a great scientist, I want to take my place on the soapbox for a moment to bang on about immunisation.

It's a process that comes with some price - there is a small risk of side effects for healthy kids (and adults), but it's offsetting some much, much greater risks. Most of the time, we just don't see evidence of those risks because the viruses are held at bay by mass vaccination. Every now and then we get a glimpse, though. I got one when I got chicken pox because I didn't know I could be vaccinated. It's not one of science's great vaccines, lots of people who've been vaccinated still get it, but they get it in a much milder form. I'd have taken that option if I'd known about it.

Also, last time Ben had a throat infection they couldn't quite place, they asked if he'd been vaccinated, and were relieved to be able to rule out epiglottitis (which is most commonly caused by HiB) because it's life threatening.

These are examples of the "what's in it for me" rationale of vaccination, but I think the social arguments are at least as compelling. The risks to my healthy kids were small, but some kids can't be vaccinated for various reasons, and of course there is a time when they're too small yet. Vaccinating my kids (and myself) protects those people. The more people who choose not to vaccinate for other than medical reasons, the more carriers for these viruses and the greater the risk to those who have no choice about vaccination. Small pox is gone, but it's the only one so far.

So I'm asking you to pause and remember what life was like before people like Frank Fenner brought so many viruses under control - when many children died of whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, measles and a whole host of others. I'm also asking you to add an immunisation check to your major health checks as an adult - you know those 100,000km checkups you're supposed to go for every 5 or 10 years? Top up your whooping cough, rubella and so on, if not for yourself, for the more vulnerable around you.

1 comment:

  1. I am very, very pro-vaccination.

    This week, a friend of mine is at home nursing her 3 children and her husband, all of whom have whooping cough. They were all fully vaccinated, because they are very, very pro-vaccination too. She is dosed to the eyeballs and then some on antibiotics, in the hope that she will avoid the infection. None of them are in any danger, but it will be a long slow recovery. There's a whooping cough epidemic in Adelaide, and it is so unnecessary. A nuisance for my friend and her family, but possibly disastrous for others.

    I'm seeing my doctor tomorrow, for something else, but I will ask him about updating our vaccinations.

    With grateful thanks to Frank Fenner.