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Why Measles Making the News Is a Sign of Progress

Blog Post | Communicable Disease

Why Measles Making the News Is a Sign of Progress

Not long ago, measles was so common that it was simply not newsworthy.

A set of measles outbreaks in Washington state, New York City, and elsewhere, is making national headlines and frightening parents around the United States. Counter-intuitively, measles making the news is a sign of progress. Not long ago, measles was so common that it was simply not newsworthy. Suffering from the extremely infectious disease, which causes spotty rashes and a hacking cough, was widespread and often deadly.

It was once the case that even royalty fell victim to diseases now easily preventable with routine shots given during childhood. Measles killed the un-vaccinated King Kamehameha II of Hawaii, and his queen, Kamamalu, in the 1800s. A century prior to that, King Louis XIV of France lost his brother, son, grandson, and great-grandson to smallpox. Smallpox once claimed approximately 400,000 lives annually in Europe in the late 18th century, and in the 20th century, it caused hundreds of millions of deaths around the world. Thanks to vaccines, smallpox was eradicated in 1980.

As recently as the late 1950s and early 1960s, nearly twice as many children died from measles as from the polio disease. Thanks, once again, to vaccines, polio was eliminated from the United States in 1979.

Recent coverage by the Washington Post of the current measles outbreaks contains an amazing anecdote of a measles victim’s visit to a doctor: “the doctor, who had never seen measles, misdiagnosed the man’s fever and cough as bronchitis.” That measles is now so rare that even a trained medical doctor cannot recognize it, when just a generation ago it was a common childhood ailment, is truly a triumph of medical progress.

As recently as 1990, measles caused over 22 deaths per 100,000 people globally. Thanks to the measles vaccine and rising global vaccination rates, that figure fell to just over 1 per 100,000 people by 2016, the most recent year for which there is data. That represents a decline in measles deaths of over 95 percent.

The current uptick in measles cases is troubling. But the fact that measles cases are making the news at all is a testament to medical progress.

Blog Post | Vaccination

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 3: Edward Jenner

Introducing Edward Jenner, the pioneer of the smallpox vaccination - the world's first vaccine.

Today is the third instalment of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column gives a short overview of unsung heroes, who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 2nd part of this series here.

Our third Hero of Progress is Edward Jenner, an 18th century English physician who pioneered the smallpox vaccination – the world’s first vaccine.

Before it was eradicated in 1979, smallpox was one of humanity’s oldest and most devastating scourges. The virus, which can be traced back to pharaonic Egypt, is thought to have killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century alone.

The “speckled monster,” as it was known in 18th century England, smallpox was highly contagious and left the victim’s body covered with abscesses that caused immense scarring. If the viral infection was strong enough, the immune system of the patient collapsed, and the person died.

The mortality rate for smallpox was between 20 and 60 percent, and of those lucky enough to survive, a third were left blind. Among infants, it was 80 percent.

Enter, Edward Jenner.

Born in Gloucestershire in 1749, Jenner was successfully inoculated against smallpox at the age of 8. Between the age of 14 to 21 he apprenticed for a county surgeon in Devon. In 1770, he enrolled as a pupil at St. George’s Hospital in London.

At the hospital Jenner had a variety of interests: he studied geology, conducted experiments on human blood, built and twice launched his own hydrogen balloons, and conducted a particularly lengthy study on the cuckoo bird.

In May 1796, Jenner turned his attention to smallpox. For many years Jenner had heard stories that dairymaids were immune to smallpox because they had already contracted cowpox – a mild disease from cows that resembles smallpox – when they were children.

Jenner found a young dairymaid by the name of Sarah Nelms who had recently been infected with cowpox from Blossom, a cow whose hide still hangs on the wall of St. George’s medical hospital. Jenner extracted pus from one of Nelms’ pustules and inserted it in an 8-year old boy named James Phipps – the son of Jenner’s gardener.

Phipps developed a mild fever, but no infection. Two months later, Jenner inoculated the boy with a fresh smallpox lesion and no disease developed. Jenner concluded that the experiment had been a success and he named the new procedure vaccination from the Latin wordvacca meaning cow.

The American physician Donald Hopkins has noted, “Jenner’s unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved that they were immune to smallpox.”

The success of Jenner’s discovery quickly spread around Europe. Napoleon, who was at war with Britain at the time, had all his troops vaccinated, awarded Jenner a medal, and even released two English prisoners at Jenner’s request. Napoleon is cited as having said he could not “refuse anything to one of the greatest benefactors of mankind.”

Jenner made no attempt to enrich himself through his discovery and he even built a small one-room hut in his garden, where he would vaccinate the poor free of charge – he called it the “Temple of Vaccinia.” Later in life he was appointed Physician Extraordinary to King George IV and was made mayor of Berkeley, Gloucestershire. He died on January 26th, 1823, aged 73.

In 1979, the World Health Organization officially declared smallpox an eradicated disease.

The smallpox vaccine laid the foundation for other discoveries in immunology and the amelioration of diseases such as measles (rubeola), influenza (the flu), tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus (lockjaw), pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis A and B, polio, yellow fever and rotavirus.

Jenner’s work has saved untold millions of lives from a disease that has plagued humanity for millennia and it is for that reason that Edward Jenner is our third Hero of Progress.

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Humanity’s Most Ancient Enemy May Be on Its Way Out

Thanks to COVID-19, few have noted the emergence of an amazing new malaria vaccine.

Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator contains many interesting tidbits. For example, the American historian argues that mosquitoes may have played a role in the extinction of dinosaurs. He also notes that the diseases mosquitos carry have been around long enough to alter human DNA (e.g., the prevalence of sickle cell disease among people of African ancestry). According to Winegard, the mosquito “has ruled the earth for 190 million years and has killed with unremitting potency” some 52 billion people (i.e., more than all wars in history combined).

One of the most interesting passages relates to the so-called “Darien Scheme,” which was the Kingdom of Scotland’s attempt to colonize the Gulf of Darién in what is today’s Panama. The Scots came equipped with a printing press and plenty of woolen socks but no earthly idea how to deal with gazillions of mosquitos that promptly wiped the colonists out. The financial hit to the Kingdom was so severe that the Scotts agreed to join forces with the English, thus forming what is today the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland.

Malaria, the most common disease spread by the mosquito, is a thing of the past in much of the developed world, but the parasite still infects some 200 million people a year – killing 400,000. Children aged under the age of five are most susceptible to malaria, accounting for a majority of the fatalities worldwide. In addition to the human suffering, malaria imposes huge economic costs on some of the poorest countries in the world – nine percent of the gross domestic product in Chad, for example.

Mercifully, our most ancient enemy may have met its match. The COVID-19 pandemic sucked so much air out of the news cycle that relatively few people noted the emergence of an amazing new malaria vaccine. The injection infects people with “live Plasmodium falciparum parasites, along with drugs to kill any parasites that reached the liver or bloodstream, where they can cause malaria symptoms.” According to Nature magazine, “the vaccination protected 87.5 percent of participants who were infected after three months with the same strain of parasite that was used in the inoculation, and 77.8 percent of those who were infected with a different strain.”

In our book, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting, Ronald Bailey and I noted that thanks to better treatments and preventive measures, the malaria death rate dropped from 12.6 per 100,000 in 1990 to 8.2 per 100,000 in 2017. That incremental progress is encouraging, but we very much look forward to the day when the malaria death rate stands at zero and the disease joins the other illnesses humanity has either extinguished or contained. Last year may have been a miserable one, but it appears to have delivered not one but two important vaccines. Surely that’s something for which we should be grateful.

Blog Post | Scientific Research

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 19: Louis Pasteur

Introducing the man who is commonly dubbed "the father of microbiology," Louis Pasteur.

Today marks the 19th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 18th part of this series here.

Today’s Hero of Progress is Louis Pasteur, a 19th century French scientist, who is commonly dubbed the “father of microbiology.” Pasteur is renowned for developing the germ theory of disease, creating the process of pasteurization (which prevents the spoiling of many food products), and for changing the way that scientists create vaccines.

Louis Pasteur was born to a poor Catholic family in Jura, France, on December 27, 1822. In 1839, Pasteur enrolled at the Royal College of Besançon, the same city in which he had attended secondary school. Within a year, Pasteur had earned his Bachelor of Letters. In 1842, he graduated with a degree in science. A year later, he started studying at the École Normale Supérieure, a graduate school in Paris. In 1848, Pasteur was appointed professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg.

In Strasbourg, Pasteur met his wife Marie. The pair married in 1849 and had five children. However, only two of those children survived to adulthood, while the rest died of typhoid. It is said that the death of his three children motivated Pasteur to study infections and vaccinations.

In 1856, when he was the dean of the faculty of sciences at the University of Lille, Pasteur started to study fermentation to help a local wine manufacturer overcome the problem of alcohol souring.

Before Pasteur, people believed in a doctrine of “spontaneous generation,” which held that life spontaneously appeared from non-living matter. That faulty reasoning was used to explain why food spoiled and how infections developed.

To disprove the theory of spontaneous generation, Pasteur “exposed freshly boiled broth to air in vessels that contained a filter to stop all particles passing through to the growth medium, and even with no filter at all, with air being admitted via a long tortuous tube that would not pass dust particles. Nothing grew in the broths: therefore the living organisms, which grew in the broths that had not been heated, came from outside as spores on dust, rather than being generated within the broth.”

Furthermore, Pasteur found that heating of beverages to a temperature ranging from 140F to 212F (60°C-100°C) killed the bacteria in those liquids. His first successful test was completed on April 20, 1862, and the process he developed came to be known as pasteurization. Pasteur patented his discovery in 1865.

Pasteur then turned his attention to the development of vaccines. He and his colleagues injected chickens with cultured cholera microbes. After many experiments, the team discovered that if the birds were injected with live cholera microbes after they had already been injected with a weaker strain of cholera, the chickens would remain healthy.

Pasteur thus became the first scientist to use artificially weakened viruses as vaccines. Pasteur then went on to develop a vaccine for anthrax in 1881. In 1885, Pasteur successfully developed a rabies vaccine.

In 1888, Pasteur had received enough donations to open the Pasteur Institute – a private foundation dedicated to the study of biology, micro-organisms, diseases, and vaccines. He remained director of his institute until he died on September 28, 1895.

Pasteur became the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1878. He received dozens of honorary awards and today there are some 30 institutes, and several hospitals, schools and streets named after him. When he died, Pasteur was given a state funeral in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and his body was interred in a vault beneath his institute, where it still lays today.

The work of Louis Pasteur fundamentally changed the world we live in. The proof he provided for the existence of the germ theory of disease revolutionized the way we think about human health. Pasteurization enabled us to preserve beverages and canned foods far longer than was previously thought possible. And, finally, Pasteur revolutionized the development of vaccines.

Much of modern science rests on Pasteur’s work. Without him, it is likely that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people would not be alive today. For that reason, Louis Pasteur is our 19th Hero of Progress.