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Way back in 1768, a very clever English physician called John Fewster noticed that milkmaids who contracted cowpox, which is very similar to smallpox but much milder, seemed not to catch smallpox, even when regular epidemics were sweeping the country. A few years later, during a smallpox epidemic in 1774, an equally clever and rather brave Dorset farmer called Benjamin Jesty who had also spotted this link, extracted pus from the cowpox pustules on his cattle, which sounds disgusting, but then he jabbed it into his wife and kids and they remained smallpox free, although nobody really understood why.

It’s a sort of Darwinian natural selection: weeding out the idiots so they don’t breed further generations of halfwits.

In 1796, Edward Jenner went one stage further and came up with the concept of immunity through vaccination, once again through the observation of milkmaids, and scraping the pus from the hands of a milkmaid named Sarah who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom, concocted a vaccine and injected it into both arms of an eight year old boy called James Phipps. Then, in an experiment that would probably be frowned upon today, he exposed young James to smallpox and, hey presto, the lad remained fit and well. 

Eradicated

Fast forward nearly two centuries to 1980, and the World Health Organisation declared smallpox officially eradicated. It is safe to say that, for his work on the smallpox vaccine and for subsequent vaccines that have followed the same principle, Edward Jenner has been responsible for saving more lives than anyone who has ever lived. 

Today we have vaccines for loads of ghastly diseases: polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis B, meningitis, influenza and even one for cervical cancer. Only a fool would deny that the world is a far better place thanks to Edward Jenner, Sarah the milkmaid and the heroic Blossom.

We now find ourselves in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – another horrible illness which continues to claim lives all over the world, while also wreaking a terrible toll on the global economy, mental wellbeing and the livelihoods of quite literally billions of people. But the great news is that, despite yet another wave of yet another variant, those of us privileged enough to live in a rich, resourceful country with a sophisticated health-care system which has stockpiled hundreds of millions of doses of safe effective vaccines, can avoid the worst ravages of the disease by getting vaccinated. We should count ourselves lucky: even Germany is facing a vaccine shortage, let alone dozens of low- and middle-income countries.

Conspiracy theories

Sadly, we live in a world where conspiracy theories flourish and sad fools with nothing better to do propagate these theories on social media, where the stupid and, to be fair, the vulnerable are unable to separate hard, scientific fact from what can only be described as total bollocks. This explosion of ignorance has led to a small but significant minority of people refusing to get vaccinated.

Frankly, if the unvaccinated want to risk catching the disease and possibly dying, that’s their look out. It’s a sort of Darwinian natural selection: weeding out the idiots so they don’t breed further generations of halfwits. Except, of course, it isn’t just their look out: it’s all of ours. It is the unvaccinated who are filling up intensive care units, who are directly responsible for unnecessarily eating up the resources of the NHS so people with genuinely unavoidable illnesses, sometimes life-threatening, do not receive their treatment in time. And it’s not only life-saving procedures which are affected: hip replacements, cataract operations, routine tests and scans…the backlog grows daily and it is the unvaccinated who have blood on their hands.

Any why is this? Because of the misplaced belief in some sort of global conspiracy which, depending on who you listen to, involves planting tiny microchips in all of us so we can be controlled, and so many other laughable “theories”, some of which you may have heard, but which I really can’t be arsed to list here. Twitter’s full of them: take a look if you need a laugh…except it’s not actually funny.

If being an anti-vaxxer weren’t bad enough, this confederacy of the ill-informed wants the right to spread the disease throughout society at large…to the elderly, the sick and the vulnerable. They become apoplectic when there is talk of vaccine passports or other restrictions, banging on about individual freedoms and human rights.

Rights and responsibilities

But the truth is that many of our freedoms come with restrictions. As an Englishman of sound mind and disposition, it is my inalienable right to get pissed every night, but it is not my right to then drive home. Some people might say that it is not for the government to say when I can or can’t use my car, but they would be wrong. You have the right to catch a train to wherever you want to go —  this isn’t North Korea — but that right is restricted by the fact that you can only do so if you buy a ticket. In short, rights come with responsibilities. 

So let’s bring in vaccine passports which, in the UK, we could do very easily as we already have proof of vaccine on the NHS app. It’s up to you if you don’t want to be vaccinated, but if you want to travel on public transport, take a trip to the shops, go to the pub, visit the cinema, stay in a hotel, in fact anything that involves being in close proximity to other people, hard cheese. You may have rights, but you also have responsibilities, and you cannot exercise one without the other.

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Rob Harkavy

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