August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and it provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate how vaccines have greatly reduced disease, disability and death. In 1796, there was one documented successful vaccine available to immunize people from smallpox. By the early twentieth century, scientists had used that discovery to produce three more critical vaccines, and mere decades later, could apply it on a larger scale. Today, we have vaccines that protect against 26 diseases and prevent an estimated 2-3 million deaths every year. This is remarkable.
Vaccines work with the body’s natural defenses to safely develop immunity to a disease and are widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful and cost-effective health interventions. They work like a training course for the immune system. Traditional vaccines prepare the body to fight a disease without exposing it to the disease’s symptoms, so when bacteria or viruses enter the body, the immune cells will respond by producing antibodies.
It’s important to know that before a vaccine is recommended for use in the United States, the vaccine undergoes vigorous examination by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make sure the vaccine works – and that it’s safe. However, having vaccines available is only one part of eradicating a disease. To achieve such feats as near worldwide polio eradication, it is imperative for all to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommended immunization schedule. When immunization rates are high, the entire community is better protected from harmful, preventable diseases.
In 2011, over 350,000 cases of measles were reported around the world. Of the cases in the U.S., 90 percent were associated with cases imported from another country. The fact that most Americans are vaccinated against measles prevented these cases from becoming epidemics. Disease rates are low in the U.S. today, but if we let ourselves become vulnerable by not vaccinating, a resurgence of under-control diseases is only a plane ride away.
As pathogens change over time, and new ones emerge, the vaccine industry must continue research to meet the ever-changing landscape. Many scientists across the country are working to improve vaccinations to ensure they continue to be successful in fighting disease and protecting against viruses, bacteria and pathogens.
There is also an increased focus on developing the next generation of vaccines to treat some of our most pressing public health concerns, such as cancer and infectious diseases. Among the many routes scientists are exploring, DNA and RNA vaccines are showing particular promise. When foreign DNA or RNA is taken up by a cell and translated into a given antigen protein, it can produce an immune response. If that antigen is associated with cancer or HIV or some other chronic condition, it’s possible to train the immune system to recognize the tumor or disease that expresses the antigen and treat it with a learned immune response.
Much of this important research is happening right here in Maryland, which comes as no surprise as the area houses both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – agencies which are instrumental in vaccine research and development. Maryland is also home to 20 percent of the top influencers worldwide in vaccine development, including such giants as GlaxoSmithKline, who recently opened its newest global vaccine research and development center in the state. Rockville-based Immunomic Therapeutics is pioneering a next-generation nucleic acid vaccine, specifically focused on treating cancer, starting with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Immunomic scientists are investigating the UNITE platform, which is thought to work by encoding the Lysosomal Associated Membrane Protein, an endogenous protein in humans, to utilize the body’s natural biochemistry to develop a broad immune response. This investigational technology has the potential to alter how we use immunotherapy for cancer, allergy and infectious disease.
Vaccines will always be vital to keep our population healthy. It is imperative that our leaders encourage immunization throughout our communities and support innovation as scientists develop the next generation of vaccines. Before the school year begins, take a moment to ensure you and your family are vaccinated according to the CDC’s recommended schedule – because a vaccinated community is a healthy community.