For many years, some have assumed that I am older than I am, not because of any premature lines on my face, but because of a telltale scar on my left arm, the stigmata of the smallpox vaccination my grandfather gave me as a baby.
The World Health Organisation had declared smallpox eradicated by the time I was born, but my grandfather, a GP-surgeon in rural India, didn’t believe them. My mother has told me how he cradled me, his first granddaughter, and asked her if he might give me the smallpox vaccine in addition to the others recommended at the time, from stock he had left over. Given what he had seen in his career, this was an act of love.
Smallpox was the first vaccine invented, and there is evidence of its use in China, Africa and Turkey eight hundred years before Jenner introduced it in Europe. It would be almost another two hundred years before smallpox was eradicated in one of the biggest global vaccination drives ever seen. Since then, many other vaccines have been developed to prevent previously common disease. So effective are they that in many parts of the world, we have the luxury of believing that they do nothing at all.
I always cried at my children’s vaccinations. The beautiful nurses always assumed that this was because I was upset about the need for an injection, but it truth it was because to me, vaccination was one of the things that reminded me of our common humanity. As I bundled my tiny babies up and carried them to the community vaccination centre, I felt around me the billions of parents who had done the same – sometimes walking to distant towns, sometimes waiting for mobile clinics to roll in – all of us holding our precious children and giving them the injections that would prevent the disease, harm and death that had visited so many generations of parents before us.
I cried hardest at my youngest child’s first vaccinations. By circumstance, he too was born in India during a temporary stay, and we matched his vaccinations to the Australian schedule. Not all of the required vaccinations were funded or off-patent; for some we paid an amount that was not inexpensive by Australian standards, and completely out of reach for many Indians. The injustice – that these protections were denied some children and some parents sitting in the same clinic as us – hurt most of all.
I know that vaccination has become a controversial topic. I know that faith and trust has been eroded by poorly done studies and frank scientific lies. I know that for some individuals, allergy, pre-existing health conditions, and other circumstances mean that vaccination is an impossibility.
But I must confess to being quite emotional over the last few months about the majesty and wonder of science – that less than a year from the time a novel pandemic virus was identified and sequenced, scientists had made a vaccine. I have watched the results suggesting reduced transmission in Israel with wonder, and I am overwhelmed that of the 7.8 billion people in the world, we here in Australia are slowly being given access to the COVID-19 vaccine this week.
There is injustice in this, yes, just as I wept at the inherent unfairness that my infant would be protected from a particular pneumonia when millions of others couldn’t be and hundreds of thousands of children would die as a consequence. And I know that there is fear in some quarters that long-term follow up studies have not yet been possible.
But when we look at the safety and efficacy of vaccination more broadly at a global level, it remains one of the most important public health interventions ever introduced. And if we consider the effects of COVID infection as evidenced by the deaths and long term health effects seen in other parts of the world, it seems a huge privilege to be able to access vaccination for this infection.
I don’t know when I will get my vaccine – and this is ok, because there are others at much greater risk who need it more first. But what I do know is that I will certainly cry when I do. Because to me, it is an enormous privilege to have access to vaccination at all, and because inherent in humanity working together to prevent disease is love.