Editor’s note: This article contains some graphic images.
The story of vaccines is the story of human progress.
From the earliest accounts of immunisation in 10th century China to the historic eradication of smallpox in 1980, millions and millions of lives have been saved by vaccinations. Its historical significance leaves a more permanent mark than our first footsteps on the moon — its legacy against inequality should inspire more hope than the fall of the Berlin wall.
And yet it feels like the success of immunisation has often been hushed. It’s easy to forget how something as simple as vaccination has completely changed the world. But an NHS doctor is here to remind us — in just five tweets.
Rachel Clarke used to be a journalist. After graduating from Oxford University, she produced documentaries on war and conflict. But when she turned 29, Clarke went back to school to retrain as a junior doctor.
She started a career in palliative medicine, helping terminal patients live out their final days in comfort. But Clarke later became embroiled in the very public disputes over new contracts for junior doctors that led to strikes and a souring of relations between the government and staff working for the National Health Service.
Clarke represented her colleagues on television, radio, and in newspapers. “Every junior doctor knows another junior doctor who has either taken their own life or has come very close,” she once told an interviewer at i News. It wasn’t just about pay. She was fighting for junior doctors to hold onto their compassion.
That is perhaps the driving force behind her posts around immunisation too, which she calls a “visual representation of vaccines, in five tweets.” Because vaccines really are just empathy in action. It's the global community at its best.
A visual argument for vaccines, in five tweets:— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) May 14, 2019
1/ A ward of polio victims, incarcerated inside "iron lungs" in 1950s America. Many are children, their lungs paralysed, unable to breathe unaided. Thanks to vaccination, no-one has caught polio in the UK since the 1980s. pic.twitter.com/KCqAmRETMy
Polio might soon be the second disease completely eradicated by human beings. The disease mainly affects children under five, sometimes causing paralysis and even death. But it’s now 99.9% eradicated worldwide, with only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — still polio-endemic.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has played a big role in that. Founded in 1988, it’s a partnership of governments, public bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO), and charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that work together to get polio vaccines to the hardest to reach places around the world.
It has had incredible success: thanks to 2.5 billion vaccinations, an estimated 16 million people today are walking who would otherwise have been paralysed by the disease, according to GPEI, while more than 1.5 million people are alive whose lives would otherwise have been lost.
Funding has come from all over the world, including from UK aid spent by Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID). It committed £300 million in 2013 and an additional £100 million in 2017 after Global Citizens took hundreds of thousands of actions, including sending tweets and signing petitions, urging DfID to play a part in making history.
3/ 82,500. The number of measles cases in Europe in 2018. That is 3x as many as in 2017, and an astonishing 15x as many as in 2016.— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) May 14, 2019
Last year, measles caused 72 avoidable deaths in Europe. Many victims were children. pic.twitter.com/05sxfMMjs3
The death of Roald Dahl’s daughter in November 1962 has shown us how far we’ve come in fighting measles — and is a stark warning of what happens if we lose momentum.
Her name was Olivia. The author wrote about how he used to read to her while she was in bed, and how one day, while he was showing her how to carve animals from pipe-cleaners, he noticed that her hands and mind weren’t working as they were supposed to. Within 12 hours, she had died.
Since then, Britain has eradicated measles — only to then lose that status earlier this year on Aug. 19. Fewer children are getting vaccinated, more parents are getting complacent, and myths continue to circulate around the internet pedalling fake facts about the dangers of immunisation.
Globally, there have been 364,808 cases reported so far this year. Everyone needs to heed the words of a letter Dahl wrote after his daughter’s death: it’s "almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised."
5/ Smallpox. A horrific disease, now eradicated, thanks to vaccination. Its mortality rate was 30% - and even higher in babies. Survivors had extensive skin scarring. Many were left blind. pic.twitter.com/Edn4jxNPHb— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) May 14, 2019
Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer in Britain for women under the age of 35.
But since 2009, young girls across the country have been getting the HPV (human papilomavirus) vaccine — and it has almost completely eliminated cases of cervical pre-cancer in young women. Research from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) from Scotland in April 2019 found that there’s been a 90% fall in pre-cancerous cells.
Simply put, vaccines work. Everybody wants more diseases to go the way of smallpox — a triumph that must surely be recognised as one of the greatest achievements of the human race.
But as we inch towards another moment for the history books, Dr. Rachel Clarke is urging us to look back as well as forwards. There’s been so much already achieved by vaccinations. It’s only by understanding our past that we can start to shape our future.
Reliable, evidence-based, sensible information available here on the pros and cons of all the common vaccines: https://t.co/W1f5Nq8LXV— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) May 14, 2019
Global Citizen Prize at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Dec. 13 is the first major event in our 2020 campaign, Global Goal Live: The Possible Dream. The year-long campaign will focus on three crucial areas: the climate crisis, gender equality, and human capital — empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty through access to quality education, nutritious food, and universal health systems. Vaccinations are one of the most effective ways to ensure good health and end preventable deaths, in line with the UN’s Global Goal 3 for health and wellbeing.
Next year will be vital for global health efforts, with the UK set to continue its world-leading efforts on health by hosting a major global conference on vaccines — a replenishment moment for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Gavi’s efforts over the past two decades have already seen more than 700 million children vaccinated, and 10 million lives saved as a result. You can join the movement to end extreme poverty and ensure that everyone has access to vaccines by taking action with us here.