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By Lakshmi Halasyamani, MD, Chief Medical Officer, NorthShore University HealthSystem
With summer here, many of us are sporting shorter sleeves, and I am reminded of a moment many years ago when my then much younger children looked with amazement at the large and noticeable scar I had on my right arm. “How did you get that?” they asked me.
I proudly told them that many years before, the world was on a mission to eradicate a terrible and disfiguring disease called smallpox. The scar was the result of the vaccine I received so I would not get smallpox. They then looked at their own arms and asked why didn’t they have smallpox vaccine scars?
I smiled as I told them that we had eradicated smallpox from the world because of the efforts of many through a collaborative global vaccination program. As a result, they no longer needed the smallpox vaccine. No one did.
In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated, and the potential of a vaccine to eradicate a disease has since expanded to other diseases like measles, tetanus, influenza, pneumococcal disease, and now COVID-19.
Vaccines have saved millions of lives around the world and in developing countries. Having access to them has been a critical enabler of increasing life expectancy. Vaccines have changed lives and saved lives – just like knowing that washing your hands keeps germs from spreading; like the discovery of penicillin changed the nature of how we fight infection, and like anesthesia allows people to undergo operations without excruciating pain.
When I think about the transformative impact of vaccines around the world, I am reminded of the personal and profound impact vaccination has had on me. I immigrated to the United States when I was four years old with my family and, in addition to the smallpox vaccine which I received in India, I received other vaccines when I came to the United States. These were essential for me to go to school and to benefit from the tremendous sacrifices that my parents made in bringing me and my brother here.
Sometimes, to appreciate an advance, we must think about it in the broader context of all of the other advances we have benefitted from as a society. Can we imagine a time when we did not tell our kids to wash their hands?
That brings me to our current state regarding COVID-19 vaccination. The development of these vaccinations is a testament to the incredible grit and perseverance of people to help one another. It is our path to reconnecting with each other and restoring all the activities that we cherish for ourselves and our children. Let's all take this path together to keep each other safe.
The scar on my arm is proof.