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An NHS Doctor Has Shared 5 Powerful Reasons Why Vaccines Have Changed the World

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goal 3 calls for good health and well-being for everyone — and a vital part of that goal is ensuring vaccines for all. Vaccines save lives, and no one should have to suffer from diseases that are entirely preventable. Join the movement by taking action here in support of the Global Goals. 

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.

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.

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.

Read More: Britain Just Officially Lost Its ‘Measles-Free’ Status

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."

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.