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Commentary: Vaccines

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad talks about vaccines during this week's commentary.
Rich Egger
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad talks about vaccines during this week's commentary.

When I was 5 or 6, I got chickenpox. I don’t remember much about the experience except that I had blisters in my ears, inside of my nose, and all over my torso. I was an itchy, grumpy mess for about a week. I do remember my dear sweet mama and Grandma Mildred trying to comfort and heal me in their own ways. My mother, a high school teacher with a college degree, relied on Western science to tell her how to cure me. My Grandma Mildred, who had been raised in rural Appalachia, adhered to what she had learned from her mother and grandmother, which was a vast array of ethnobotanical knowledge of the herbs and plants found in the hills of southern Ohio. As a little kid, I can’t say that I had an understanding of how these two amazing women negotiated how they were going to nurse me back to health, except to say that they admired and respected each other’s knowledge about how the world worked.

Fast forward 50 years and last week the chickenpox virus made another appearance in my life. My husband Michael and I both received our second shingles vaccine at the McDonough County Health Department. And boy did it knock us out. In fact, the side effects were worse than our second COVID vaccine or subsequent booster shots.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection. This type of infection almost never causes illness, but it does cause the immune system to produce white blood cells (T-lymphocytes) and antibodies. Sometimes, after getting a vaccine, this imposter infection can cause minor symptoms, like a fever, head and body aches. While unpleasant, these symptoms are normal and an expected reaction as our bodies build immunity. Once the imitation infection goes away, our bodies are left with a supply of “memory” in the form of white blood cells (T-lymphocytes & B-lymphocytes) that remember how to fight that disease in the future.

Michael and I have both experienced full-blown bouts of shingles, which was miserable. I was happy to trade a day of the side effects of the shingles vaccine to never have to experience that disease again.

Humans have been treating ourselves with vaccines for a long time. The earliest recorded evidence of a vaccine dates back to 200 BCE in both China and India. Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China documents Chinese scrolls that depict healers inoculating individuals against the smallpox virus by scratching matter from a smallpox sore into a healthy person's arm. Fast forward to the 1700s and humans were still battling this disease.

While British Dr. Edward Jenner is credited with demonstrating that an infection with the relatively mild cowpox virus provides immunity against the deadly smallpox virus, the credit actually goes to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) from 1716-1718. Because of her gender, Lady Wortley Montagu had access to spaces that were off limits to men, which allowed her to observe female healers. Lady Wortely Montagu’s brother had died of smallpox and she herself was disfigured from the disease, and as such she had a vested interest in preventing future human suffering. In March 1717 while visiting women in their segregated zenanas, which are private portions of homes for Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu women, she witnessed the practice of inoculation against smallpox and wrote home about it in a number of her letters. Upon returning to Britain, she introduced and advocated for the smallpox inoculation. Her writings in her book, Letters from Turkey, in addition to chronicling the science address practiced by women, challenged then social attitudes towards women and their intellectual and social growth.

I will close with a quote from the World Health Organization’s Global Vaccine Action plan. “With the exception of clean, safe drinking water, no human endeavor rivals immunization in combating infectious diseases and reducing mortality rates. Today, vaccination can prevent several infectious diseases, and there are new vaccines on the horizon with the potential to prevent even more. Mass immunization programs have proven successful in controlling or even eliminating disease”.

Trust the science. Get vaccinated and avoid preventable human suffering.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.