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Vaccination – why it is so important

19 October 2012

Did you know that vaccination prevents between 2-3 million deaths every year?

According to the World Health Organization, vaccination (or immunisation) “prevents between 2-3 million deaths every year in all age groups from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), and measles.”1 It is considered one of the most successful and cost-effective medical interventions to prevent disease.

Vaccination as we know it today has been around since the early 1800’s when Edward Jenner used cow pox to vaccinate against the much deadlier smallpox virus. The premise behind his work was to expose patients to a small dose of the less harmful virus, thereby spurring the body to mount an immune response, so that if exposed to smallpox, a much lesser infection occurred and was not fatal.

Today, vaccines have been developed to combat many diseases that would otherwise cause a dangerous level of illness and even death. These include measles, rubella, pertussis and influenza.

Vaccines take advantage of the immune system’s natural ability to learn how to eliminate almost any disease-causing germ that attacks it. Once vaccinated the immune system ‘remembers’ this information, so can more easily recognise and destroy the infectious organisms should it encounter them again. When this happens, a person is said to have immunity. Before vaccination, the only way to become immune to a disease was to actually get sick, and with luck, survive.

The most well known vaccines are the prophylactic vaccines, which are given before the onset of disease, to help prevent an individual from getting seriously sick. Examples include the flu shot and the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil. Here at the Malaghan Institute our scientists are also working on vaccines against the infectious organisms Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) and human hookworm. 

Other vaccines, such as the prostate cancer vaccine Provenge, are given to an individual after their disease has already developed. These latter vaccines are referred to as therapeutic vaccines.  For the past 16 years, our scientists have been developing therapeutic dendritic cell cancer vaccines for the treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, melanoma and glioblastoma multiforme. Our scientists are also exploring the feasibility of applying their knowledge of the Th2 allergic immune response to the development of therapeutic vaccines against allergic diseases such as asthma. Like Provenge, these therapeutic vaccines are given to a patient after their disease has already been detected. 

The controversy over the safe use of vaccines has been a modern development with concerns being raised about the correlation of the rise in autism and childhood cancers to the prolific use of vaccines today. To date, no credible research has been published that proves this causal link.

The Malaghan Institute conducts research based on the immune system and as such, we believe in using the power of our own body to fight disease. We also believe the immune system can be manipulated to provide a better defence against disease than if left to its own devices – a clear example of this is vaccination.

We wholeheartedly agree with the science behind vaccination and would encourage all people, parents in particular who are considering vaccination for their children, to carefully research whether or not the risks of side effects of vaccination outweigh the risks of the getting the full infection.

When carefully considered in this way, vaccination is the clear winner.


1.  Taken from the World Health Organization Website, Oct 2012