In the first weeks of 2021, during what were (please God) the deadliest days of the pandemic, a theoretical modeling study was published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Behind the confidence intervals and bewildering acronyms is a testimony of God at work, bringing life and life flourishing where otherwise death and isolation would have reign.
The paper, titled “Estimating the health impact of vaccination against ten pathogens in 98 low-income and middle-income countries from 2000 to 2030: a modelling study,” is the work of an international team of researchers who try to quantify the logistically unquantifiable. They attempt to measure what difference it makes to vaccinate the poor in developing nations. These countries are those that are least likely to have robust medical record systems, hence the need to model the effectiveness of vaccination programs instead of just measuring them.
Most of the vaccines they study are familiar because they are in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s schedule of recommended vaccinations. These include vaccines against hepatitis B virus, Haemophilus influenzaetype B, human papillomavirus, measles, Neisseria meningitidis (meningitis), Streptococcus pneumoniae, rotavirus, and rubella. The final two vaccines they studied are less common in the West but still important. They protect against Japanese encephalitis and yellow fever.
As someone who has received most of these vaccines and is faithfully working my children through the CDC schedule, it is easy for me to fixate on the actual process of bracing my kids for a shot or worrying about the (exceedingly rare) side effects. I think that part of the reason why those concerns shape my vaccine experience is because of how data are presented about these diseases. For example, on their website the CDC reports the number of cases of measles in the US each year for the past decade. If you follow the link you will see that in 2020 there were 13 cases of measles diagnosed in the United States. Three times that many Americans were bitten by sharks in 2020 (link), so you can be forgiven for seeing sharks as a much bigger threat than measles. But that is just not true.
The paper in The Lancet shows us the effect of vaccines not by reporting the number of cases of measles, but by counting those saved from the virus. They predict that among children born in their study period (2000 – 2030), 58,000,000 lives will be saved by the measles vaccine. That is about the population of Italy. The paper predicts that the 10 vaccines together will save a stunning 120,000,000 lives among those born in these decades. Those lives saved by vaccines are equal to the total population of Japan. Remember, these are exclusively children born into low- and middle-income countries who will now have a chance at life thanks to these vaccines.
Among the lessons learned from the Covid19 pandemic is that pathogens ignore borders. Therefore, when I vaccinate my children in the US, I am not just trying to keep them from being among the 13 Americans who will catch measles. Instead, I am working to assure that they can join the 58 million who are able to live because of the measles vaccine.
I suspect that sharing the good news that these vaccines save tens of millions of lives will be more effective at changing behavior than threatening patients with the risks of skipping a vaccine. Vaccines are an incredible gift from God that save millions of lives and we are invited to participate in this extraordinary blessing.
Unnamed in the paper is a backstory behind these vaccines that exemplifies the mysterious ways God works in the world for the sake of the poor and the forgotten. Eight of the ten vaccines included in this study (all but HPV and rotavirus) were developed by one scientist: Dr. Maurice Hilleman (link). Dr. Hilleman, who was recently profiled in an excellent episode of Radiolab, dedicated his life to an ambitious goal. He went to work every day (for 60 years!) with the mission of eradicating childhood disease and the article in The Lancet shows how incredibly successful he was toward his goal.
By all reports Dr. Hilleman was quarrelsome, harsh, vulgar, and a difficult colleague with whom to work, but through his efforts God is saving the lives of 120,000,000 children. Scripture is filled with the least likely heroes including Jacob, Samson, David, Cyrus and Paul. God, in His wisdom has chosen to work through quarrelsome, harsh, vulgar, and difficult people to advance His kingdom and to do His work.
One comfort in this time of pandemic, when the news is dominated by a deadly virus, is that God is already faithfully working through those we would least expect to save lives and bring healing. The tragic daily counts of COVID-19 infections and deaths is necessary to validate the experiences of those suffering the sickness and loss. But, thanks to this article in The Lancet, we are reminded also to count those who are saved and to praise God for being with us in the face of even the worst diseases.