Vaccines are the future of health care

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COVID-19 and the new vaccines for it have revealed once again that there is significant vaccine hesitancy and resistance among Americans. That needs to change because vaccines will increasingly become medicine’s first line of defense against many of humanity’s deadliest and most debilitating diseases.

Vaccine hesitancy isn’t new. There has long been tepid uptake of the annual flu vaccine, even though it’s safe, widely available and very affordable, if not free. And yet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which tracks annual flu vaccination rates, reports that 48.4 percent of adults (age 18 and older) got the flu vaccine in the 2019-20 flu season — up from the mid-40 percent range for the previous decade.

Fortunately, some of the most vulnerable populations, such as seniors (age 65 and up), are much more likely to take vaccines — including nearly 70 percent for the flu vaccine. The COVID-19 senior vaccination rate is even higher, with more than 80 percent having had both doses, according to the CDC. And it appears that more people will get vaccinated if the threat of illness or death is rising, which it currently is with the delta variant. 

But while the biopharmaceutical manufacturers are working to discover treatments for COVID-19 and many other diseases, the companies are also pouring billions of dollars into research to find vaccines that will prevent or treat several dreaded illnesses.

For example, there are currently four vaccines to prevent various forms of cancer — three for preventing infection from the human papillomavirus and one to help prevent hepatitis B-related liver cancer.

In addition to cancer prevention, scientists are developing “therapeutic vaccines,” which treat cancer after it has appeared, either by using one’s own cells (autologous cancer vaccines) or cells grown in a lab (allogenic cancer vaccines). Another vaccine uses DNA from a tumor to create an immune response to that tumor. There are two vaccine treatments for cancer already on the market.

Researchers are also working on vaccines for Alzheimer’s. In one case involving a therapeutic vaccine, scientists use a patient’s body cells to target the beta-amyloid proteins thought to play a critical role in developing the disease.

And scientists are working on different vaccine approaches to prevent or treat Parkinson’s disease by addressing certain protein deposits that build up in the brain. Researchers are also trying to develop a vaccine for rheumatoid arthritis, among other ailments.

That research is fundamental because while medical science has made advances in treating many serious diseases, it has made limited progress in preventing them. That’s where vaccines come in. By enhancing the body’s immune system, they are the best preventive medicine we have for many diseases. And they will likely prevent or reduce the seriousness of many more in the future.

For some years, the medical community has emphasized preventive care, exercise and lifestyle changes to strengthen the body’s immune system and mitigate the risk of catching a disease and the cost of treating it. But healthy eating and exercise habits will not prevent people from catching measles. Nor will they prevent Tetanus, chickenpox, polio or shingles. Those diseases can infect even healthy people. 

Fortunately, we have vaccines that protect us from contracting each of those diseases — or greatly minimize the disease’s impact if we become infected. And they have been generally embraced without much public pushback. For example, states require children attending K-12 schools to be vaccinated for several diseases — with exceptions granted for specific medical and religious reasons. Generally, between 90 percent and 95 percent of students comply with those requirements, depending on the vaccine and the state, according to the CDC

The public’s response to the COVID-19 vaccines has been different. The pandemic has demonstrated that health professionals still have work to do in explaining the benefits of vaccines and dispelling various myths.

One group of underused health care professionals who interact with patients daily and can do the hard work of education is pharmacists. Yet, there are significant variations in state laws governing pharmacists’ ability to immunize patients. Therefore, it is important for states to expand and harmonize state laws and allow pharmacists to administer all Food and Drug Administration-approved and Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices-recommended adult vaccines.

Future vaccines may be our best preventive medicine option for long-feared diseases. They may even become the preferred treatment option. Let’s hope they won’t be as politicized as the COVID-19 vaccines have, become because the least effective vaccine is the one a person refuses to take.

Robert Popovian is a senior health policy fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute and former vice president of U.S. government relations for Pfizer, Inc. Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas.

Tags Cancer vaccines Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC COVID-19 vaccine Influenza vaccine Medical research Medicine Therapeutic vaccines Vaccination Vaccine Vaccines Virology

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