health | June 07, 2012

Laurie Garrett & Michael Osterholm: How Effective are Vaccines?

At the World Science Festival in New York City recently, leading health journalists and scientists gathered to reflect on past mistakes and discuss the future of public health. Among them were Lavin speakers Michael Osterholm, a public health scientist, and Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Garrett and Osterholm both agreed with fellow panelists that universal vaccinations hold the biggest opportunities for good global health. However, global vaccines are also among the most contentious health topics: they’re wildly distrusted by the public, which ultimately slows down—or completely hinders—their implementation.  

Michael Osterholm serves on the Department of Health and Human Services’ advisory board on biosecurity, and is the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. He is adamant about breaking up the negative hype surrounding vaccinations in order to create better medicine.

Here’s Osterholm, at the conference:

The challenge today is not only with the scientific data regarding vaccine effectiveness, but with much broader forces such as public sentiment that make it difficult to predict the success of vaccines going forward. The bottom line is we need better vaccines. But we’re being held up from developing better vaccines from the sense that the current ones are good enough.

There's no denying that, despite the best efforts of scientists and doctors, new diseases will continue to emerge. Universal vaccinations—widespread, and highly accessible—are our best hope at combating infection. But anti-vaccination groups claim these vaccines are purely to profit drug companies. They point to the H1N1 scare: where billions of dollars was poured into drug manufacturing, and then the viral epidemic flopped, leaving the World Health Organization with an excess of vaccinations.  

Laurie Garrett is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. She concurs that H1N1 gave anti-vaccination groups the ammunition they needed to protest global vaccines. But, she argues, “If H1N1 had not been the so-called ‘wimpy’ virus, we would have had carnage worldwide.” Better to be safe than sorry, and look to the real statistics of medical emergencies. Garrett—along with Osterholm and the rest of the panel—is hopeful that the World Health Organization will be given the chance to move on from the incident, make better vaccinations, and continue proving their efficiency and importance.

Read more about health speakers Michael Osterholm and Laurie Garrett. 

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