Georges C. Benjamin, M.D.
Executive Director, American Public Health Association
Only 58 percent of Americans said that they are getting the soon-to-be COVID-19 vaccine. What can we do to increase this number?
Vaccines are one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, saving tens of millions of lives, preventing immeasurable suffering, and saving billions of dollars in treatment costs. The science is abundantly clear: vaccines work.
It’s easy to forget what it was like before we had vaccines for diseases like polio, measles, rubella, diphtheria, and whooping cough. In the ‘50s, for example, polio caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis every year, mostly among children. After the vaccine, cases plummeted. There hasn’t been a single case of polio originating in the United States since 1979.
Whooping cough used to take the lives of thousands of newborns each year. Before a vaccine arrived, thousands of people were hospitalized with the disease; hundreds died annually. Remember smallpox? Vaccines officially eradicated the global scourge in 1980.
Life without a vaccine
None of us need a reminder, though. COVID-19 is still surging around the country. However, even if an effective vaccine is debuting soon, only 58 percent of Americans said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a November Gallup poll.
Though the figure is up from 50 percent in September, it’s still a serious challenge that we must address head-on. An effective COVID-19 vaccine won’t fulfill its mission without an equally effective vaccine education. Transparency and trust-building will be paramount in the coming months, especially in communities of color disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and where mistrust in healthcare systems is high.
Before a vaccine ever makes it to the public, federal science agencies oversee an extensive testing phase to ensure it’s safe and effective. Often, this process can take years; though for COVID-19, global mobilization and many years of existing research have helped speed up the process.
A new vaccine is first studied in animals and then in humans in three phases — first in a small number of people before expanding to hundreds and then to thousands. As of mid-November, 12 coronavirus vaccines had begun phase 3 trials, which include large-scale efficacy tests. Multiple layers of scientists pour over the data. After a vaccine is approved, officials begin monitoring their use and investigating any potential safety concerns. Systems such as the national Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System are already set up to do this kind of surveillance and are specifically designed to detect safety issues in their earliest stages.
These systems have served us well for many decades, producing safe and effective vaccines that saved millions of American lives. The research remains overwhelming that vaccines are one of the greatest disease-fighting tools ever discovered.
Soon, we’ll have a chance to wield one against COVID-19, too, but just as its development is a collective effort, so too is the effort to get people to roll up their sleeves and get immunized. For that, we must all come together to spread the word far and wide: Vaccines work.