WHEN Frank Fenner graduated from medicine in 1938, Australia was in the grip of a polio outbreak.
As a fifth-year medical student, Fenner had responded to a plea for help from the Metropolitan Infectious Diseases Hospital in Adelaide, where (as he documented in his 2006 autobiography) he found himself admitting one of his former primary school companions with what was then known as “infantile paralysis”.
The virologist, who went on to spearhead the successful global campaign to eradicate smallpox, was never likely to underestimate the power of micro-organisms to wreak havoc in the human body.
But Fenner, who died aged 95 last week, was one of a dwindling breed of doctors who practised medicine before the advent of antibiotics and effective vaccinations against polio and many other once devastating illnesses.
These days, many in the general population, and even some in the health professions, are a lot more complacent.
Freed from the spectre of children in iron lungs, many parents now indulge in anxious speculation about the small, often unproven, dangers of vaccines and ignore the far greater risks posed by the diseases they aim to prevent.
The consequences of the resulting loss of herd immunity can be tragic, as I wrote in a recent post about the death of a 4-week-old baby from whooping cough in northern New South Wales last year.
Earlier generations were more grateful for immunisation than we are today, having seen the alternative first-hand.
Back in 1967, as Fenner and others were getting the World Health Organization’s anti-smallpox campaign under way, the disease was still endemic in more than 30 countries.
There were 20 million cases worldwide that year, and 2 million people died.
Just over a decade later, on 8 May 1980, Fenner, as chairman of the global commission charged with confirming the disease’s eradication, was able to stand in front of the World Health Assembly and announce that smallpox had been wiped out from the face of the globe.
Vaccination, along with surveillance and containment, was a cornerstone of that triumph, still regarded as the WHO’s most significant achievement.
Many hoped smallpox would be the first of many infectious diseases to be eradicated but, 30 years on, that success has yet to be repeated, despite efforts to rid the world of polio coming tantalisingly close.
In fact, the potent mix of complacency and concerns about vaccine safety threatens to lead to a resurgence of some once devastating illnesses.
State funerals are all very well, but perhaps the best way we could pay tribute to Frank Fenner would be by becoming advocates for immunisation: combating myths and misinformation whenever they arise and reminding those who have forgotten what a world without vaccines would really be like.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor. Her book, Making girls and boys, on the science of sex and gender, will be published by UNSW Press early next year.
Posted 29 November 2010