We’ve seen off smallpox, polio and measles – so why does a truly reliable flu jab still elude us?
By Jeremy Brown
Vaccines are one of the great success stories of modern medicine. Because of them we are no longer vulnerable to smallpox or polio or measles. The Flu Vaccine, however, is a different story. Its effectiveness varies from patient to patient, from population to population, and from year to year. It needs to be updated each season, and even in a good year is usually no more than 50% effective. We may rely on it to avoid catching the flu, but its story demonstrates how far we still are from a reliable vaccine.
Vaccination, the process of infecting a healthy person with a microbe to prevent disease, dates back at least a thousand years. But the start of vaccination as we think of it today is generally credited to the work of Edward Jenner, a British physician born in 1749. Jenner was a keen observer with a deep interest in the natural world, and found time for both serious study and artistic play. He investigated everything from hydrogen balloons to the life cycle of the cuckoo, wrote poetry and played the violin, but smallpox – or rather, the eradication of it – is his legacy. Because of Jenner, this virus is not on our list of worries today.
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