Friday, November 13, 2020

Polly is right: put Edward Jenner's statue back in Trafalgar Square where it belongs

Pulling down or removing statues has a long and ignoble history and it's not always the "woke" or those who think they are progressive doing it: it can be the worst kind of reactionary.

I don't often utter or write the words "I agree with Polly Toynbee" but she rather spoils her utility as a contrarian indicator for me by sometimes getting things absolutely right, and she was right today to call for the statue of Edward Jenner to be returned to its original location in Trafalgar Square.

                                                (Portrait of Edward Jenner, 1749-1823)


Smallpox used to be one of the biggest killers in human history - between a fifth and a third of those who contracted it died. I have seen estimates that at certain stages in history one in twelve deaths were due to this horrible disease.

Prior to Edward Jenner's work, the original method of vaccinating against smallpox, called variolation, involved injecting people with a weak dose of smallpox itself. This technique, developed in China and India a thousand years ago, did confer immunity but at a terrible price - between half a percent and two percent of those who experienced this procedure actually died from it. And it was possible for people who had been inoculated in this way to become carriers who spread the disease to others.

In historical periods when smallpox was prevalent that still gave you a significantly better chance of surviving and avoiding unsightly scarring than if you didn't have the procedure given that the death rate from variolation was an order of magnitude lower than if you caught the disease naturally, but these drawbacks were obviously very serious.

It was Jenner who proved that a country saying  - that milkmaids who had been exposed to the much less serious disease, cowpox, did not get smallpox - was based on fact. As we now understand, if a human immune system is producing antibodies against the less deadly condition, then that person is also protected against the killer. Jenner was able to produce a vaccine against smallpox based on cowpox which was completely safe for most people in good health (and if used indiscriminately was still of the order of ten thousand times safer than variolation) and could not make people into smallpox carriers.

In the sixty-two years which passed between Jenner's experiment in 1796 and the unveiling by Prince Albert of a statue to him in 1858, his vaccine had already saved vast numbers of lives and made smallpox much rarer in several countries including Britain. And yet that statue was the target of protest and opposition from those who exhibited the worst kind of reactionary luddite stupidity.

There is an important distinction to be drawn between, on the one hand, those who ask intelligent questions or raise concerns based on facts and evidence about the safety and efficacy of particular vaccines or their suitability for particular patients and, on the other, the dangerous morons - or scoundrels - who oppose all vaccination. 

It is always reasonable to want to know before you or members of your family take a new vaccine whether proper checks have been done that it is safe and effective. Even vaccines which are safe for most people and effective on enough people to control a disease may not be safe for all individuals, so it is never wrong to seek proper professional advice.

But in all of human history, there has been no more lethal myth - and I use that expression quite literally to denote the false idea which has caused the most unnecessary deaths - than the idea that all vaccines are dangerous.

In the 19th century the anti-vaxxer lunatics of that time manged to get Edward Jenner's statue moved from Trafalgar Square to a less prominent position in Kensington Gardens.

He has, of course, a vastly more important memorial. In 1980 his vision of a world free from smallpox came true. If everyone had listened to him, that could have been achieved much earlier and literally hundreds of millions of premature deaths could have been avoided.

Sadly the anti-vax lunacy is proving far harder to eradicate than smallpox.

At the time of writing this post, we do not yet have the evidence to satisfy the regulators that either the Oxford or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 is both safe and effective, though the extensive clinical trials of both vaccines are at a stage which may provide such evidence within the next few months. 

I don't criticise anyone for wanting to see that evidence or to know that it has been robustly checked before they take the vaccine or give it to their loved ones. I do criticise those who rushed to judgement against any vaccine before there was an iota of evidence, and if we get a safe and effective vaccine those who spread propaganda against it will be playing, not devil's advocate, but death's advocate.

To go back to Polly Toynbee, she mentions that the Royal Society and the British Academy are calling for the promotion of anti-vax myths to be made a criminal offence. I again agree with her that in her words 

"That might be a bad mistake, fuelling the paranoia of anti-vax cranks."   

However, Boris Johnson, who I hope spoke on this issue for most of us including many who have never agreed with him on anything else, was to right speak out in blunt language when he called arguments against all vaccination "total nonsense" and those who spread such arguments "nuts."  

And there would be no better symbolic move we could make to reject their arguments and to give a great man of science the recognition he deserves for helping to save so many lives - including those who will be saved if we can get an effective vaccination against COVID-19 - than to put Edward Jenner's statue back where it belongs in Trafalgar Square.

1 comment:

Chris Whiteside said...

My old friend Quentin Langley posted on the Facebook version of this article that it has been argued that Edward Jenner probably saved more lives than anyone else in human history.

(He nominated Norman Borlaug, founder of the "green revolution" which dramatically increased food production, as the other main contender for that honour.)