Why We Need to Celebrate the Smallpox Vaccine

In light of brilliant breakthroughs like gene alteration for genetic disorders, nanomachines to cure cancer cells, minimally invasive treatment procedures for epilepsy — no, the smallpox vaccine doesn’t seem like a big deal. It obviously isn’t a new medical discovery. In fact, last May 8 commemorates the fact that the world has been free of the illness for 38 years. But the reason we need to celebrate it is precisely because of the many successes that followed the 1980s smallpox eradication. And the need to counter the threats to these successes.

William Foege, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has written a book in 2011 called House on Fire where he explains just how he made it possible. He and other health workers wiped out smallpox — “by dreaming, being savvy in politics and unafraid to break the rules, and devising the brilliant ring vaccination strategy.”

Foege and his colleagues found that instead of using the vaccine on entire populations, it was more effective to distribute it among the demographic most at risk, which were the contacts of the infected. After being proven true in the smallpox case, this strategy on immunization was replicated on the prevention of other diseases or viruses such as measles, polio, malaria, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and others. Some have been nearly wiped out as well, while the incidence rates of some have significantly dropped.

However, a few decades later, people now face a dilemma. What about the now-debunked finding that vaccine causes autism? The anti-vaccine movement discredits the milestones of smallpox eradication and immunization. Does the use of vaccine actually pose more risk than benefit to humans? Well, it might be time to look back at history for answers regarding the progress of human health. William Foege, the man who developed the global strategy for vaccination, is still fighting for truth.

“I think vaccines are really the foundation of public health . . . By the early 1980s, [many of] our vaccine diseases had gone down to close to zero . . . So things were going quite well until Andrew Wakefield did his Lancet article [suggesting there’s a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism] . . . He specifically said the MMR vaccine was the problem. He was disbarred in England because of the falsifications of his [data].”

Turns out, the research linking vaccines to autism is completely bogus that Wakefield even lost his medical license. But that hasn’t stopped parents all over the world from being paranoid. Foege understands that parents are only “trying to do the right thing,” but in doing so, they forget the risk of disease and focus on a completely false risk of the vaccine. This seems to make the anti-vaccine movement more of a health education issue, as people are just clearly misinformed.

38 years after smallpox eradication and other successes, vaccination has become a social problem more than a scientific one. In some countries, the public health debate even results in violence. But globally, more often than not, it results in the slower prevention and elimination of certain diseases. But Foege is still hopeful.

“I think we’re at the beginning of an eradication era — because of vaccines — and as we learn more and more about logistics, cold chains, how to develop vaccines that don’t require refrigeration, don’t require using needles and syringes, I think the future is very bright for disease eradication . . . You have to believe a disease can be eradicated . . . you have to put up with all the frustrations . . . you stick with your vision of what the last mile is.”

True enough, a disease can be eradicated. Smallpox is a testament to that. So celebrate the fact that you were born after it’s gone. Celebrate the fact that it led to much slimmer chances of measles in your lifetime. Now more than ever, we need to celebrate this feat, so that decades of medical history — thus, strong leads to medical progress — will not go down the laboratory drain.

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Smart Glasses Help Autistic Kids Improve Social Skills

Throughout history, music therapy has allowed children with social deficits to come out of their shells. Because of an exploding technological universe, scientists are experimenting with treatment using artificial intelligence. To help autistic children work on their life skills, a Massachusetts startup has created emotion-tracking high-tech glasses.

“Our applications are gamified and engaging, and run on smart glasses. Unlike with a tablet or phone, the person is looking up, and our software encourages social interaction with other people.” [said Dr. Ned Sahin, founder of Brain Power.]

The Empower Me glasses feature games such as Emotion Charades, which encourages users to interact with others. Seeing that emojis are all the rage with young smartphone consumers, the application is a clever one. Years of thorough testing are finally bringing the system to market.

“People on the spectrum enjoy the engaging format of the applications we have designed, and parents truly appreciate the ‘connectedness’ they feel with their child,” Sahin continued.

Developed along with MIT, Harvard, and Affectiva, Empower Me doesn’t come cheap. At $945 for the apps alone, the price tag isn’t a light one — but it surely is well worth it.

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Supermarket’s Quiet Hour Is For Autistic Shoppers

Every now and then, in the virtual universe, I stumble upon some very giving and compassionate people. Some like to make grand gestures. Bill Gates, one of the biggest philanthropists of our time, recently donated $4.6 billion in stakes to charity. Others show their generosity in different ways. This mom donated 5,000 pints of breastmilk to babies in need. Just yesterday, Coles supermarket, along with Autism Spectrum Australia, introduced “quiet hour” for its autistic shoppers.

During the that time, the store’s radio will be turned down to its lowest level, and the lights will be dimmed by 50 per cent.

Register and scanner volumes will be turned down to its lowest level, roll cages will be off the shop floor, trolley collections will stop, and PA announcements will be avoided — bar emergencies.

Quiet hour will run through to October, although all of us are wishing it’d be a permanent practice. Coles has been training staff to better understand sensory overload and how to cater to autistic customers’ needs.

“Although we have modified some of the physical and sensory stimulators in store, we also hope to achieve a ‘no-judgement’ shopping space for people and families on the spectrum, where customers will feel comfortable and welcome.”

Members of the Australian community are thrilled over the initiative, some taking to FaceBook to express their gratitude towards Coles. We may not fully understand how loud the world can be for these people, but we can always put our best foot forward.

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