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  • Lawrence Bailey

An ounce of prevention still works

I heard someone decry the influence of “Big Pharma” the other day. The phrase is used to describe the global pharmaceutical industry along with its supply chain and various associated interests.

This is big business in the truest sense. It’s estimated that over 4.5 million people are in pharma-related employment worldwide, generating in excess of $1.7 billion a year. Opinion as to whether this is a good or bad phenomenon is often divided.

We’d be wrong however in thinking that it’s entirely a modern trend. Victorians were just as keen about health cures for every ailment.

Their enthusiasm came in the wake of several earlier key advances in medical science. Few of those were more significant than the practice of immunisation against disease.

Back in 1796, Edward Jenner developed the concept when he injected a young boy with a small dose of cowpox – control over research on human subjects was a lot less stringent is those days. Anyway, the result was an immunity to the full-blown version. Two years later, the first smallpox vaccine was developed.

We’ve since come a long way and seen a succession of crippling diseases wiped out globally, using much the same approach.

And yet, just last month, the UK lost its measles-free status.

Sadly, the reason why cases of the potentially deadly infection have been on the rise is because, once again, too few people are getting vaccinated.

It’s the younger population who are most affected by this increase. There are few more interactive places than schools and colleges. Contagions can be frighteningly quick; spread through water droplets, coughed or sneezed by infected individuals.

The key thing about vaccination is that the aim not just about mitigating the worst effects of a disease. It’s also a means of eliminating the chance of being infected at all. Achieving this outcome is based on something called ‘herd immunity’.

As we know, a combination of discredited ‘research’ and unfounded fears about the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) jab caused vaccination take-up to decline a decade or more ago. This resulted in severe outbreaks which required a massive treatment campaign that stretched health services to the absolute limit.

The feeling today among the NHS hierarchy is that insufficient resources would be available to cope with a major measles epidemic on top of the seasonal impact of flu and winter-related pressures.

Maybe the reason for the latest sporadic take-up is familiarity breeding contempt or perhaps its rooted in suspicions about ‘Big Pharma’.

Whatever the motivation, skipping vaccination is a risky option. It might seem to be without immediate consequences but the reality is that the odds are stacked against you protecting anyone in the long term if you choose that path.

In other words, an ounce of prevention is still a good idea.

You can learn more about the subject by visiting the Vaccine Knowledge Project ( It’s an independent initiative run by academic staff at the University of Oxford. No funding for their work comes from pharmaceutical companies.

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