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30th August 2019

Forty years after mass immunisation eradicated smallpox, vaccination treatments continue to develop at a remarkable pace. What challenges face us now?

However sensibly we prepare ourselves, illness can still catch us unawares. But the protection available to us today is unrecognisable from what our parents and grandparents grew up with. August is National Immunisation Awareness Month (NIAM) and vaccination treatments continue to develop at a remarkable pace. It’s now forty years since mass global immunisation eradicated smallpox. Children of the 21st century grow up free from the shadow of Polio and Whooping Cough. So what challenges face us now?

World Health Organisation figures tell us that infections still account for 40% of recorded deaths. Applying molecular genetics to this problem opens countless doors. Analysing the genetic differences between healthy and unhealthy cells helps us develop more effective treatment strategies, and at an accelerated rate. It promises to make huge improvements to quality of life at both ends of the age spectrum. By delivering suitable vaccines to expectant mothers, antibodies can reach unborn children and continue to protect them via the mother’s breast milk while their immune systems are still maturing.

Older generations can’t be ignored in a society which is rapidly ageing. This demographic trend has been dubbed the “Silver Tsunami” and threatens to over-burden healthcare systems and entire economies. Vaccination could potentially be used to treat both infectious and non-infectious diseases, not just to prevent them, improving quality of life for billions.

This opens the door to treatment options for autoimmune disorders and chronic conditions including cancers. Vaccines could be directed against tumours or be used to boost the body’s anti-tumour immune response. And where the body’s immune system creates a negative response, such as an allergic reaction, vaccines could prompt the opposite reaction and effectively “switch off” this unwanted pattern.

The principles of vaccination have been with us for well over two thousand years, when inhabitants of Ancient Libya were drinking snake venom to build immunity to bites. We’ve come a long way since then, and those of us who are lucky enough to work alongside clinical pioneers are excited by where we might go next.


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