In the 1700s, it would take months to travel from present-day Kasama to Livingstone, on foot. With the advancement of technology, an airplane can now cover that distance in an hour. For eons, man stared at the skies and wondered at the rock that circulated the globe every 30 days or so, the moon. In 1968, Man went to the moon and collected samples of that rock. Since the dawn of time, Man has died from infections in a horrible manner. Since the advent of antibiotics, deaths from infections are rare. In the 60s, computers were the size of bedrooms. Now they fit in the palm of your hand. In the 40s, a letter to England from Northern Rhodesia would take at least 3 weeks; now an e-letter takes 3 seconds! In the 50s getting a telephone connection to a loved one between Cape Town and London took ages and needed several operators. Now you can pick up your mobile phone and be connected to your loved one anywhere in the world within seconds.
That’s right, technology has been on the march, and the rate of advancement is now exponential. What’s that got to do with vaccinations, the Covid-19 vaccine to be specific? A lot. In the last 100 years, the practice of medicine has advanced beyond recognition.
There are 4 main parts to the management of medical conditions:
- Health promotion
Let’s stick to prevention. Prevention is in three main parts: avoiding risks, prophylaxis, and immunization.
Prophylaxis involves taking a drug to prevent an infection occurring. This is commonly done to prevent malaria.
Avoiding risk is, for example, reducing the intake of salt and increasing physical activity to prevent diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.
Immunization is by far the most effective way of disease prevention and over the decades, billions of lives have been saved from death and illness by vaccinations. Vaccinations were discovered by William Jenner in 1796. Jenner used fluid from a cowpox blister to prevent smallpox in an eight-year-old boy. In the centuries that followed, scientists used a part of the germ or the germ causing an illness for immunization. The practice was to take the germ, kill it or inactivate it, then inject it into the body. The body’s immune response then reacted and was primed. If a live infection was contracted by the person, the body responded furiously and destroyed the invader. This is the principle used for vaccines for polio, smallpox, measles, diphtheria, mumps, meningitis, and others.
Fast forward to 2019. Science had advanced in leaps and bounds. The genetic map of many living things, including humans and a number of germs, was now known. The very building blocks of man (DNA) and the instructions that are given to build man (mRNA) were now well understood. Then Kaboom! The Covid-19 virus hits the globe and many millions are infected and millions die. The scientists move at warp speed and utilize all the accumulated knowledge to unravel the secrets of this new virus. They use the latest techniques to understand what makes the virus tick and what ways can be used to prevent its spread from person to person or to reduce the severity of the infection.
The science is there, and it is used to great effect to come up with a vaccine in record time. In decades gone, it would have taken many years to develop this vaccine. But remember, that was the time it took weeks for a letter to travel from Lusaka to London! That was the time when 1 hour was equal to 60 minutes. Now 1 hour is equal to 60 seconds! Now, scientists know the instructions the virus gives to an infected person for that person’s immune system to be fooled into producing more viruses and then making that person very sick and sometimes very dead.
Remember, the aim of germs is not to kill the host, but to replicate in the host, and to then spread from that host to another host as a survival measure. A germ that kills all its hosts will not propagate and will die off pretty quickly. And so it is with Covid-19 as the majority of infected persons survive and only a minority die.
So, scientists studied the virus and found its weak points. They then worked out how to stop the virus from infecting the human host, and if it infects, to make the host have only a mild disease. Scientists looked at the genetic make-up of the virus and worked out which areas were susceptible to attack leading to its destruction. They then worked out the genetic instructions that are needed to attack the weak points of the virus. These instructions were packaged and given to humans. At the cellular and biochemical level, the vaccines use different mechanism to induce an appropriate response.
Ultimately, the immune system examines these instructions and responds by creating chemicals that will attack and kill or neutralize the Covid-19 virus. The immune system has many types of cells to react to infections. These cells are now primed and if a Covid-19 virus is so silly as to infect a person whose immune system has been prepared for it, then all hell breaks loose and in the majority of cases, the virus is completely destroyed. In cases where the virus manages to get a foothold, it causes only a mild infection. The battle is won for that person, but for the war to be won for the whole society, at least 60 percent of the population has to be vaccinated to defeat the invader in the case of the Covid-19. This is called herd immunity or community immunity.
So, what of the worries that this vaccine has been developed too fast and uses DNA and RNA methods that may have unintended or intended consequences? The question about the speed of the development of the vaccine has been answered above. As for consequences, of course, all drugs and therapeutic interventions by their nature have side effects or adverse effects because they are foreign to your body. Some of the effects of the various Covid-19 vaccines will become clear with time. What is clear is that it is not possible for the vaccines to change a person’s DNA.
Let’s look briefly at everyday risks that we take to continue living and not merely existing: • People die from aspirin reactions called Stevens-Johnson. Have we stopped using aspirin? Not at all!
• Thousands of people die each year encased in aluminum tubes flying at 600 km/hour that fall out of the sky and into hard ground or the sea. Have we stopped flying in airplanes? Hell no!
• Thousands of people die each year on the roads in motor vehicle accidents. Have we stopped jumping in our cars to go to work or visit relatives in other towns? No ways!
• Thousands of people are knifed each year, sometimes by spouses, and vital parts cut-off! Have we banned knives in all our kitchens? Nix!
So, to be vaccinated or not vaccinated against Covid-19? Choose to be vaccinated! By so doing, you are not only saving yourself from illness and possibly death, but you are also saving society, because unless we can get a critical percentage of the population vaccinated, the disease will not go away. Think about it.
By Dr. Chishimba M Lumbwe