By Jim Russo
When George Washington was leader of the Continental Army, he ordered the inoculation of his troops against smallpox. In 1777, he wrote, “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence we should have more to dread from it than from the Sword of the Enemy.”
Since then, acceptance of public health to provide for the common good has led to longer life spans through measures such as municipal water and sanitation systems, nutrition programs, and universal vaccination. Most give little thought to the historical harm caused by diphtheria, smallpox, polio or measles because of the success of our vaccines.
Over the past two years with SARS CoV-2, our public health science has rapidly advanced. But public trust has steadily eroded, with some state legislatures encouraging or even actively promoting a breakdown in that trust. These actions imperil us all.
We can pretend that viruses are hoaxes or that they don’t cause harm. But that is about as helpful as claiming gravity doesn’t exist.
In 1988, during the HIV epidemic, Nobel Prize winning microbiologist Joshua Lederberg wrote, “We are complacent to trust that nature is benign; we are arrogant to assert that we have the means to except ourselves from the competition. But our principal competitors for dominion, outside our own species, are the microbes: the viruses, bacteria, and parasites. They remain an interminable threat to our survival.”
These words ring true in 2022, reminding us that the pathogens that cause pandemics have always been, and will continue to be part of the human condition. Yet it is our actions that determine how far viruses spread, the number of deaths, and who is most susceptible.
Public health has presented us with the means to move past this pandemic. The adoption of social distancing and mask wearing along with vaccines to reduce new infections and severity of disease give us the tools to limit human suffering from SARS CoV-2.
Now it remains for Americans to trust in “ordered liberty,” a concept considered by founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as they sought to balance public order and personal freedom. Ordered liberty recognizes that our individual actions have consequences in matters such as infectious disease, compelling us to act together to prevent harm to others.
Every new virus generates fear. SARS CoV-2 is especially confounding since many infected individuals experience mild disease and are lulled into complacency. This masks the magnitude of suffering and death in our communities. Likewise, every new vaccine generates uncertainty and fears about safety. Sadly, loss of trust in public health science often distorts our ability to assess the relative risk of harm from viral infection.
With case numbers still high due to the omicron variant, we must recognize that vaccines serve our mutual interests. Hundreds of millions of lives have been saved by vaccination since 1900. Millions more can be saved by a collective effort to vaccinate the world against SARS CoV-2. The decision to vaccinate is not simply an individual action to protect oneself, but an expression of solidarity for our most vulnerable neighbors.
George Washington saw the virulence of smallpox as a greater threat than the British army. We need to see the virulence of SARS CoV-2 as a much greater threat than any personal sacrifice we might be asked to make in an effort to stem its devastation.
SARS CoV-2 is our current challenge. The question going forward is, will we allow public health to prepare us for the next pandemic-causing microbe?
Jim Russo, PhD, has been a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla since 1989. He teaches courses in biochemistry and infectious diseases and is a member of the college’s Coronavirus Task Force.
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