By Bill Miller, M.D.
It is natural to dismiss dangers that are rarely seen. That has become our present circumstance with respect to many devastating infectious diseases. Since medicine has made significant progress against its former greatest adversaries, complacent beliefs have flourished.
Surprisingly, a new malady has arisen and we are now suffering from a growing amnesia regarding the calamitous effects of infectious disease throughout human history.
For example, smallpox has had a vast impact on human history. Horrific mortality was experienced in the New World in the 1500s. Prior to the Spanish conquistadors, it was unknown. After its introduction, the majority of the indigenous populations were wiped out, leading to the collapse of the Aztec and Incan empires.
In 18th century Europe, at least 400,000 people died annually from smallpox. One-third of the survivors went blind. Mortality rates went as high as 60 percent in some communities.
Today, due to the effectiveness of worldwide smallpox vaccination programs, that disease has been effectively eradicated from the planet.
However, this is not the case for other consequential infectious diseases. Recently, a whooping cough epidemic swept through California, where vaccination rates are steadily lagging. Contrary to any ordinary expectation, it is the most affluent and educated parents who are shunning immunization.
Although many regard vaccination as merely an individual decision, it is decidedly not. It is part of a social contract through which we take into account the needs of others. Whether you or your neighbor are immunized matters to the community. Herd immunity – a means of protecting a whole community from disease by immunizing a critical mass of its populace – for the few individuals in any population who cannot be vaccinated is crucial protection.
When general vaccination rates decline, there is a consequential loss of this necessary collective immunity. For example, Arizona had two measles outbreaks in the past two years. Dozens were infected and thousands exposed. The culprit in each instance was an undervaccinated general population.
The contemporary decline in vaccination rates is an example of hard-won knowledge cast aside. It has become a modern amnesia that will surely be short-lived. The next outbreak of a preventable infectious disease with its incumbent tragedies is always lurking.
Fortunately, there is a solution. There needs to be a concerted program to recover our eroded memories by familiarizing those who mistake our present moment for a permanent condition with the bitter lessons of history.
Bill Miller. M.D., has been a physician in academic and private practice for over 30 years. He currently serves as a scientific adviser to OmniBiome Therapeutics.