Before the discovery of vaccines and antibiotics, humans succumbed to diseases just like all other living organisms on this planet. Life expectancy was short because many of us died before the age of five. However, with the discovery of vaccines by Edward Jenner and antibiotics by Alexander Fleming, life expectancy changed. No longer were many common diseases a death sentence. Today, smallpox has been eradicated and tuberculosis, malaria and polio are on their way out.
Smallpox is the “perfect” human disease. This virus was extremely contagious, with a mortality rate of 30%. That means it would kill about a third of the people it infected. Luckily, Edward Jenner made the astute observation that cowpox-infected milkmaids never got sick. Using pus from cowpox pustules, Jenner inoculated a young boy who had been exposed to smallpox. Surprisingly, the boy never became ill. Thus, the first vaccine was born. Even the word “vaccine” is a reminder of Jenner’s life-changing discovery. It comes from the Latin word for cow, vacca. Without this discovery, humanity would continue to struggle against this virus. Today, you can only find samples of smallpox in high-security government laboratories.
Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that not only eats away the lungs of its victims, but also their vertebrae. Coughing or sneezing is a good way to spread this disease and most of the victims did not look quite as good when they were dying as did Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge.”
When Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics, humanity finally had a way to fight back. Antibiotics are fungal products. Fungi secrete them in order to kill off any nearby bacteria. By isolating this chemical, Fleming discovered a cure for tuberculosis. Eventually, scientists came up with a vaccine and today, the World Health Organization (WHO) believes eradication is possible by 2030.
Some diseases like polio and malaria are also on their way out. Both of these diseases wreaked havoc on humanity and continue to do so wherever they crop up. Thousands of children needed iron lungs to help them breathe after polio left them paralyzed. Malaria was so rampant and deadly that humans evolved a mutation that killed the malaria parasite within the blood. You know this mutation as sickle-cell anemia. It’s a condition that gives protection only to those who carry one half of the gene. Those who carry both copies of the gene live painful, short lives, though there is hopeful new research on that too.
A Step Back
One reason why some diseases are making a comeback today is due to the highly-misinformed anti-vaccination movement. A falsified (and now retracted) study claimed that vaccines cause autism. With the help of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, the public panicked and a movement to stop all vaccinations began.
Scientists now think that autism is most likely caused by an imbalance in the gut microbiome of growing children, something that is caused by complex factors such as genetics, environment and diet – but not vaccines.
It’s easy to forget about humanity’s struggle against pathogenic microorganisms of the past. We don’t suffer the painful deaths that our ancestors did. Losing most of our children before they turn 5 isn’t common in today’s society. But it is important to remind ourselves just how far we’ve come with advancements in science and technology. Without vaccines and antibiotics, our world would be much different.