Do you have a scar on your arm and you aren’t sure why it is there?
Is it from the smallpox vaccine?
Recognizing Old Vaccine Scars
Classically, there are two vaccines that can leave a scar – the ones that protect us against smallpox and tuberculosis.
“BCG scar is a surrogate marker of vaccination and an important index in the vaccination program.”
Dhanawade et al on Scar formation and tuberculin conversion following BCG vaccination in infants: A prospective cohort study
And there are a few easy ways to tell if you have a smallpox scar.
When were you born? Remember, the smallpox vaccine hasn’t been used in the United States since the early 1970s and its use stopped everywhere in 1986.
And where were you born?
The BCG (bacille Calmette-Guerin) vaccine, on the other hand, is still in use in many countries, and is given at birth to prevent tuberculosis disease, including meningitis and disseminated tuberculosis. It isn’t routinely used in the United States though “because of the low risk of infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the variable effectiveness of the vaccine against adult pulmonary TB, and the vaccine’s potential interference with tuberculin skin test reactivity.”
In general though:
the BCG vaccine scar has a raised center
the smallpox vaccine scar is depressed, with lines that radiate to the edges
Complicating matters is the fact that you can have multiple scars from each vaccine…
“In 1972, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization in Canada recommended that routine immunization of infants for smallpox be stopped. Very few Canadians born after 1972 have been immunized against smallpox. Those, like me, who were immunized prior to that date have little or no immunity left. Nothing, but a small scar as testimony to a grand global achievement.”
Guinea worm disease may be eradicated first, but not with the help of vaccines.
Many more vaccine-preventable diseases have been eliminated, especially in developed countries.
Similar to eradication, when a disease is eliminated, the incidence of disease is reduced to zero, but only in a particular geographic area. Unlike eradication, since the disease is still around in other areas, people must continue to get vaccinated so that the disease doesn’t come back in that area.
To be more clear, when an epidemiologist says that a disease is eliminated in an area, what they are really saying is that the endemic form of the disease has been eliminated – someone has to reintroduce the disease from outside the area for outbreaks to occur. So you can still have cases and even big outbreaks, like we continue to see with measles in the United States, however, they always start with someone who initially got infected from outside the country.
In the United States, endemic yellow fever, polio, measles, rubella and respiratory diphtheria have all been eliminated. So have neonatal tetanus and congenital rubella syndrome:
endemic yellow fever (1905), spread by mosquito bites, was the first diseases to be eliminated
neonatal tetanus was declared eliminated before 2000
endemic rubella and congenital rubella syndrome were declared eliminated in 2004
endemic respiratory diphtheria was declared eliminated in 2009 and the last big outbreak was in the 1970s
Again, even though these diseases have been eliminated in the United States, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get them anymore. If you are not vaccinated or have a problem with your immune system and travel to an area of the world where these diseases are still common, you are at risk to get sick and bring that disease home with you, infecting others.
Unfortunately, not all diseases can be eliminated and eradicated.
This may have nothing to do with how well a vaccine works or whether or not people get their kids vaccinated though.
In some cases, an infection might not be contagious and is simply found in the environment, like Ascariasis (roundworms) or tetanus. To eradicate tetanus, we would have to get rid of the tetanus bacteria at its source – soil!
Other reasons that a disease might not be able to be easily eliminated or eradicated could include that:
it can also infect animals – rabies, yellow fever, Chagas’ disease
the disease causes infections without symptoms – Amebiasis
the presence of asymptomatic carriers – diphtheria
natural infection doesn’t provide life-long immunity – malaria
the disease doesn’t always have obvious symptoms – polio
people are contagious before they have obvious symptoms – measles
Hopefully these challenges will soon be overcome for more diseases though, especially vaccine-preventable diseases like polio and measles.
Goals for Global Elimination and Eradication of Diseases
Tragically, we have a long history of not meeting our goals for disease elimination and eradication.
Still, a lot of progress has been made over the years, millions of lives have been saved, and many more deaths will be prevented if we meet our current goals to eradicate or eliminate these diseases:
polio – since the initial war on polio was started by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1938 and the development of the first polio vaccines in the 1950s to the creation of The Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, eradicating polio has been a priority for health experts. Unfortunately, we missed the first goal of eradicating polio by 2000, but are certainly getting close, as only three countries still have endemic polio – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – and worldwide cases are at all time lows. The new goal is to have a polio-free world by 2018!
measles – We have missed a lot of the goals on the way to eradicating measles, including the goal to eliminate measles in the United States by 1982 (wasn’t met until 2000), the goal of global eradication of measles by 2010 which was first set in 1996, and the goal of reducing global measles mortality by 90% by 2010 over 2000 levels (there was a 74% decrease though!). We will hopefully meet the latest goals of the Global Measles and Rubella Strategic Plan 2012-2020.
maternal and neonatal tetanus – while many people associate tetanus with stepping on a rusty nail, tetanus can also affect mothers and their newborn babies, especially when hygienic practices aren’t available when the baby is delivered or when they care for the baby’s umbilical cord. Although the target dates have been postponed from the initial goals of 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2015, eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus is still a goal. Considering that at least 34,000 newborns died of neonatal tetanus as late as 2015, which is down from 787,000 in 1988, significant progress continues to be made by the Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus Elimination partnership.
Guinea worm disease – although not usually life-threatening, Guinea worm disease is still a serious disease that causes suffering for those who become infected with the Guinea worm larvae that can grow to become adults that are 2 to 3 feet long. Fortunately, Guinea worm disease should be the next disease that is eradicated, with cases at an all time low thanks to the efforts of The Carter Center.
lymphatic filariasis (Elephantiasis) – transmitted by infected mosquitoes, lymphatic filariasis is another disabling condition that has been targeted for elimination using insecticidal bed nets and drugs donated by Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, hopefully by 2020.
taeniasis/cysticercosis (tapeworms) – eating undercooked pork that is infected with larval cysts of the tapeworm Taenia solium can cause intestinal tapeworms (taeniasis). Swallowing the eggs of these intestinal tapeworms (located in an infected persons feces) can lead to getting cysticercosis, in which the larval cysts can infect brain (neurocysticercosis) and muscle tissue, etc. Although thought to be potentially eradicable, cysticercosis is considered to be of several major neglected tropical diseases.
mumps – a vaccine-preventable disease that is thought to be potentially eradicable.
leprosy – using expanded multi-drug therapy regimens, leprosy is now in the final push phase of elimination.
river blindness (onchocerciasis) – a parasitic infection that is spread through the bite of small black flies, river blindness is targeted for eliminated in select regions using a drug donated by Merck.
trachoma – another eye infection that is spread by flies and which can lead to blindness, blinding trachoma is targeted for global elimination by 2020. In addition to health education and corrective eye surgeries, the effort has been aided by Pfizer donating an antibiotic to fight trachoma.
rubella – rubella is also also targeted for elimination from at least five WHO regions by 2020.
Unfortunately, even as we make progress to control, eliminate, and eradicate these diseases, some are beginning to make a comeback.
And no, it is not just because of parents choosing to intentionally not vaccinate their children. In many parts of the world, in addition to the humanitarian crisis and health challenges posed by natural disasters, children are getting sick in war zones and refugee camps and simply can’t be vaccinated.
What to Know about Eradicated Diseases
Vaccines work well and have helped control, eliminate, and in the case of smallpox, eradicate diseases.