Disease is a constant in our lives. For those who aren’t privileged enough to live or be born in a first-world country, disease and death is an even greater, every day fear. But many of these diseases are now preventable, primarily due to vaccination, and it’s the history as well as the future of this very modern medical miracle that Rhodes explores with this book. As an example, smallpox used to kill two million people or more every year. Now, it’s virtually extinct, surviving in just two known test tubes in the world. Rhodes starts with the pioneering work of Edward Jenner and moves through time to explore the discovery and science of vaccination, its history, and the current fight against some of the world’s fiercest diseases.
The End of Plagues was a fascinating and unexpectedly inspiring book. I had never really learned (or don’t remember) anything about the history of vaccines in school or otherwise, but I’m always interested in learning more about the world. This book spans the entire world when it comes to the history of immunisation and the fight to eradicate diseases. Most of the discoveries were made in Europe and in the United States, but the latter part of the book focuses heavily on the struggles which have and still are taking place in the Middle East and Africa to finally defeat some of the illnesses with vaccines. Disease is truly global and Rhodes looks at the entire world to get a clearer picture of where progress lies; it’s easy to forget that diseases we’ve obliterated from our own countries still flourish in others with many still suffering from illnesses we no longer see. But the progress that we’ve collectively made is astounding and it’s inspiring to read about so many countries coming together and choosing to protect their people and improve the world in the fact of extraordinary difficulties.
The history was really interesting too, although the book skipped around a little bit in the initial chapters which made it harder to follow. I got the drift quickly though, as discoveries came in hard and fast after Jenner first made his vaccine. One thing I was surprised to learn is the chequered history of older vaccinations. Because the vaccines were actually developed before the corresponding science, there was a huge amount of trial and error and it’s immensely safer now that we actually understand exactly what happens when a vaccine is placed into someone’s body. It’s a balancing act and in many ways it’s fortuitous that Jenner made his discovery exactly how and when he did (the book refers to this as serendipity and it resulted in a couple of discoveries). Vaccines are safer now, but despite the element of luck those initial vaccines and the ongoing campaigns now have eliminated scourges that have haunted humans throughout history.
Rhodes is extremely fair when it comes to understanding why people refuse vaccines for their children and even shares his own experience with doubt. Although links between vaccination and autism have been disproven, there is still a vocal minority of people who are firmly against vaccination for various reasons. While their children definitely benefit from herd immunity, these people open cracks in our defense against serious illnesses. Rhodes explores the history of vaccination and where those worries come from. In the end, though it’s small consolation to the few parents whose children do suffer side effects, vaccination has changed the world much for the better. The simple fact that children can play outside in midsummer without worrying about permanent paralysis or death proves this. Rhodes isn’t heavy-handed, but logical and understanding; worries are there, but he went ahead and vaccinated his daughter because he knew the consequences that ensued from a lapse in that “herd immunity”.
Definitely recommended – whether you’re questioning vaccination, whether you’re interested in history, whether you’re curious about efforts to cure current scourges (primarily malaria and HIV), whether you just want to learn something new. This is a book I’m glad to have read.
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