Having navigated the worst of a pandemic, it is amazing how just barely over a year since the first reports of SARS-CoV-2, a vaccine was developed. What might not be as well known is that the foundation for the COVID-19 vaccine (and a just-as-rapid quell of the spread, though obviously still be vigilant and take proper precautions) was laid out for decades with the study of mRNA-based vaccines. Although I still masked up regularly until early 2023, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to get the vaccine as soon as it was available in 2021, as my family and I sought to protect ourselves and others through a day or two of aches and nausea. The scientists and technicians at the various companies that conceived of and manufactured the vaccines that have been distributed across the planet are relatively anonymous but should be commended. August being National Immunization Awareness Month, let us learn a bit more about vaccination and the pioneers that offer us important protections that we should not take for granted.
National Immunization Awareness Month
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention as well as various federal and state agencies and hospitals all recognize August as National Immunization Awareness Month, which highlights "the importance of routine vaccination for people of all ages." On the CDC page, you can find plenty of educational resources, support spaces to answer any questions, and more to help patients and health care professionals acquire accurate information and access to clinics to stay up to date on their vaccines. The CDC also notes that one in every five children do not have access to essential immunization, and that is another mission that raising awareness can help accomplish to ensure broader accessibility to save lives.
There was a time when I got chickenpox and the mumps as a child because I didn't have access to the proper vaccines, and they were annoying (chickenpox) and painful (mumps). Every year, thousands of Americans get ill and some die because they have not been vaccinated against diseases that could be easily prevented. This awareness month aims to decrease the number of people who may be adversely impacted because they did not have clear and accurate information about vaccines and their benefits. As with all vaccination campaigns and the concept of herd immunity, the more people that are vaccinated, the less chance the disease will spread, particularly to someone that is not vaccinated, so regular vaccination is integral to protecting those who may have fallen through the cracks as well as ourselves. And considering the lengths and resources it takes to develop life-saving vaccines, the least we can do is use these critical tools to defend against disease. For example, one of the most important vaccination campaigns of all time was instrumental in eradicating smallpox, and smallpox vaccine is also effective against other similar diseases including monkeypox, which affected global health to a significant degree in 2022 while we were still trying to recover from COVID-19. Here is a fun video from Kurzgesagt that illustrates the centuries-long struggle against smallpox, a disease that decimated entire populations locally and when Europeans colonized the New World.
A Prolific and Visionary Scientist
Unlike many scientists who developed tools and medicines that changed the world, Dr. Maurice Hilleman worked seemingly in the shadows. I will admit I may not have even known of his existence without having read more about the history of vaccinations. Every school child knows the story of Edward Jenner and using cowpox samples to inoculate against smallpox (hence the word "vaccine"), but considering Hilleman may have been responsible for the entire panel of vaccines that is in common use today, it is sad that nobody dragged him out into the open so he could get the larger public recognition he deserved.
Born August 30, 1919, Maurice Ralph Hilleman graduated from Montana State University and went to the University of Chicago to pursue his doctorate in microbiology. According to Hilleman, upon receiving his PhD, he told his professors he would go into industry against their wishes in order to make better impact on generating clinical solutions and moving them quickly to market. Most of Hilleman's acquaintances and colleagues would say that his passion and genius was in vaccine development. One of his first vaccines was against Japanese B encephalitis to support troops fighting in the Pacific Theater in World War II. Apparently when his daughter developed the mumps, he swabbed her throat and used it to culture a vaccine in 1967, which I really wish I had access to back when I got the mumps!
All told, Hilleman and his colleagues were responsible for developing over 40 vaccines, including the ones that we (hopefully) give to our children on a regular schedule. This includes mumps and chickenpox (sigh) as well as measles, rubella, hepatitis A and B, and pneumonia. While the polio vaccine was separately developed by Jonas Salk, the work already done by Hilleman was probably instrumental in setting him on the right path, just as the decades of work in mRNA vaccine research expedited the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Hilleman's honors included membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the National Medal of Science from President Ronald Reagan, a lifetime achievement award from the World Health Organization, and the unknowing gratitude of millions of humans saved by his efforts. He died at the age of 85, while still doing consulting work and serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, serving humanity until the very end.
A Lasting Legacy
While I missed a few vaccines in my youth, my son did not suffer the same fate as he got everything that was available. When he was older, I explained the importance of vaccination as this is the legacy of all those decades of work, and before that, centuries of simple observations that helped to save lives through cleaner living and some cows. I think proper education and free access to accurate information, as is the mission of the National Immunization Awareness Month, will help folks be more receptive to protecting themselves through science that has been backed up for nearly a century now. In addition to my own education through direct research (albeit not with vaccines, just being in contact with lots of scientists who understand the principles), the trust in experts in the field and a fundamental understanding of how the immune system and epidemiology work was critical in my buy-in for vaccines, including my hepatitis series, tetanus boosters, and the COVID-19 vaccine. Thanks to the work of Maurice Hilleman and others that still continues today, millions of lives, including myself and my family, can continue to flourish, and that is something we should all be grateful for.
Advocating For Access to Vaccines and Health Care
My talented friend and doctor (not my personal doctor, he is a medical doctor though) Kevin Smith, MD, came by BioChat to talk about his career in clinics, research, and managing a large hospital to ensure better access to quality health care as well as important, life-saving vaccinations. Check out our conversation below and click here to find out how to subscribe, and thanks for listening!