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February CFD Salon: The Pursuit of Vaccines

By Annette Finley-Croswhite

Vaccines are scientific miracles. Historians like me are well aware of the low rates of life expectancy at birth in the days before vaccines helped ensure that most children in first-world countries would live to become adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider vaccines powerful medicines because instead of just treating diseases, they help prevent them.

Edward Jenner is generally credited with realizing the power of inoculation by figuring out that one can use a disease to prevent a disease. The story goes that Jenner often pondered the saying "pretty as a milkmaid," a statement that reflected popular understanding in his 18th-century world that milkmaids never seemed to get smallpox and thus never suffered from pock scars that ravaged the faces of many victims who survived the disease but were left forever marked. Jenner then hypothesized that perhaps interaction with the fairly mild disease known as cowpox somehow protected milkmaids from smallpox. To this end, in May of 1796 Jenner inoculated a young boy named James Phipps with cowpox and two months later exposed him to smallpox. When the boy experienced no illness, Jenner knew he was onto something and the first vaccination — from the Latin vacca for cow — was achieved.

Of course, the story is much more complicated. Firstly, variolation, an older form of vaccination that involved using smallpox scabs to induce a mild case of the disease, had been practiced by the Chinese and various people in the Ottoman Empire and on the continent of Africa for centuries before Jenner's work. Secondly, exposing little James Phipps to a potentially deadly illness was unethical and violated the Hippocratic dictate to "do no harm." Thirdly, Jenner's "miracle" was met with immediate criticism by newly formed "anti-vaccination leagues," many of which taught that taking material from animals to use in humans was against the natural order of things and hence the will of God. The story of the first smallpox vaccination is perhaps most illuminating because it shows us how scientific advancement, ethics and public opinion have a long and conflicted history, and "anti-vaxxers" are nothing new.

At Old Dominion University we are fortunate to have many experts to help us navigate understanding of the current coronavirus pandemic and the pursuit of safe and reliable vaccines. Please join an informative Center for Faculty Development Salon on Feb. 19 to discuss the origins, vectors, science and ethics of vaccines, with a focus on the rush for effective vaccines to counter the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the world.

Our panel of experts has knowledge encompassing virology, immunology, vaccinology and bioethics:

  • Dr. Emilia Oleszak, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences, will discuss coronavirus and its variants.
  • Dr. Lisa Shollenberger, assistant professor, Department of Biological Sciences, will address vaccine vectors.
  • Dr. Yvette Pearson, professor, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, will explore vaccines and ethics.

Dr. Annette Finley-Croswhite of the CFD and the Department of History and Dr. Barbara Hargrave of the Department of Biological Sciences will host the Salon.

Coincidentally, this Salon also emphasizes the importance of women in STEM (Drs. Shollenberger, Olezak and Hargrave) and highlights the critical intersection of the sciences with the humanities (Dr. Pearson).

The CFD Salon: The Pursuit of Vaccines will be held on March 19 from noon to 1:30 p.m. via Zoom. A Q&A will follow the presentations. We hope to see you there.

Register here: https://forms.gle/dSru3sPeNwP3LaKE8

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