Redland Green School

RGS Bristol

Vaccination Lecture Summary

Earlier this month Redland Green School invited students, parents/carers and staff to a fascinating lecture by Prof. Gareth Williams (Bristol University) on the controversial subject of vaccination. 

For those that didn't get to come and listen to Prof. Williams, below is a summary of his lecture. Don't forget to keep an eye on the website for any future lectures that you might like to come to!

Vaccination...from Jenner to Wakefield. Are you for or against?

Prof. Williams began by discussing smallpox itself. Before vaccination, it was contracted by about 1 in every 3 people, and killed 1 in 12. Survivors were disfigured and often blinded. 90% of its victims were under 5 years old. Effective medical treatments were never developed.

Edward Jenner was himself a victim of variolation (deliberate inoculation with smallpox virus – the precursor of vaccination) at boarding school, in very unpleasant circumstances. Prof. Williams speculated that this experience helped to drive Jenner to develop vaccination, as a safer alternative to variolation.

In 1768, aged 14, Jenner discovered a ‘legend of the milking parlour’, unknown to the medical world, that catching cowpox protected against smallpox. However, other doctors greeted the idea with disbelief and
hostility. After all, what would peasants know about smallpox?

Nevertheless, Jenner’s first vaccination took place in 1796. Although it was successful, the Royal Society rejected his paper describing the experiments. Jenner self-published his findings and his technique became an instant sensation.

By the mid 19th century, Jenner’s achievement was already clear and the last ever case of smallpox was in 1977. Vaccinating humans caused smallpox to die out because it cannot survive in other hosts. Smallpox is the only human infection we have been able to completely eradicate in this way.

There was, however, a strong anti-vaccination movement from the first. It was argued to be against ‘divine providence’ and there were claims that vaccination was dangerous, caused TB, madness, bovine deformities, syphilis and blood poisoning. There was some truth among the false claims: blood poisoning and syphilis were sometimes transmitted through vaccination before the development of screening technology.

Prof. Williams reminded the audience of the fraudulent claims made by Wakefield for a link between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism, leading to a dramatic rise in cases of measles in several countries, with increasing numbers of deaths from this easily preventable infection.

He argued that the anti-vaccination debate has often been driven by personal greed, religious bigotry or bad science. Prof. Williams concluded that vaccination works – but only if you have it – and encouraged the audience to think critically about the available evidence when deciding whether or not to accept vaccination.