Dr Mark Schipp on the power of vaccination

21 Oct 2021

Last month we observed World Rabies Day, acknowledging global efforts that aim to eradicate dog-mediated rabies by vaccinating dogs in endemic countries to break the chain of infection. This month we celebrate World Polio Day, a crippling disease that we hope will soon follow smallpox as another disease eradicated through vaccination. In November, we will spend a week raising awareness about antimicrobial resistance, and we know vaccines play an important role preventing disease which could otherwise require control through widespread use of antibiotics.  

As veterinarians, we have access to one of the most powerful tools – vaccines. Yet because vaccines can help prevent disease at their source so successfully, their power can be underestimated. We only need to look at communities that stop vaccinating and see how quickly disease can spread and take advantage of immunologically naïve populations. This is true of common diseases of dogs which are part of routine vaccination schedules in Australia - such as parvovirus, along with other exotic livestock disease outbreaks that occur overseas. 

Vaccination not only protects individuals from disease, but it has far wider positive societal and economic ramifications. As the world experiences the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of vaccination for both human health care, and as a way out of the pandemic is both obvious and necessary. 

Eradication of Rinderpest 

Veterinarians have a strong history of being at the forefront of science, and the use of vaccines is no exception. Whilst overseas travel might seem like a distant fond memory to many Australians at the moment, let me take you to Rome, where at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations there is a large plaque which commemorates the eradication of rinderpest in 2011.  

Thanks to a safe inactivated vaccine developed by British veterinarian, Walter Plowright in 1960, rinderpest was the first livestock disease to be eradicated. Prior to Plowright developing an affordable vaccine that induced lifelong immunity without major side effects or the risk of further transmission, the disease had been the scourge of livestock farmers for many centuries. 

The global animal health community now has another disease in its sights for eradication. Together the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have developed the Global Control and Eradication Strategy for peste des petits ruminants (PPR), with the goal of eradicating this disease of sheep, goats, camels and other small ruminants by 2030.  

While Australia is free from PPR, it has devastating impacts in other parts of the world. The key to eradicating PPR is again vaccination, and effective PPR vaccines already exist that can induce lifelong protective immunity in vaccinated animals. 

Foot and mouth disease  

In addition to improving animal health by helping to control or even eradicate diseases, vaccines can also help keep us on the front foot as part of our exotic animal disease preparedness. Many Australian veterinarians who worked in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s were involved in that country’s response to a nationwide foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak.  

FMD is a highly infectious virus that affects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs. Australia is free of FMD, however an outbreak of the disease here would have disastrous impacts on our livestock industries, community and economy. 

In Australia back in 2001, the Government and Livestock Industry Policy Forum identified access to stocks of vaccine as a critical component of Australia’s preparedness to respond to an outbreak of FMD. This resulted in the development of Australia’s FMD vaccine bank. 

Animal Health Australia (AHA), brings together government and industry to deliver animal health and biosecurity, it also manages the Australian FMD vaccine bank as part of emergency response preparedness plans for any potential FMD outbreak. 

The FMD vaccine bank is located in the United Kingdom and consists of a range of FMD antigens, determined by risk analysis, which can be used to rapidly manufacture vaccines for use in the event of an FMD outbreak. Having ready access to the antigens significantly reduces the time taken to produce a vaccine and enables a rapid response to an FMD outbreak. 

Veterinarians play a vital advocacy role 

Our veterinary community is diverse and encompasses many different disciplines and animal sectors. Yet, from those in small or large animal clinical practice, to those in research, academia, laboratory, industry, government or other roles, vaccines are likely to play a critical role – as indeed they do in our day-to-day lives.  

For example, livestock veterinarians protect themselves by being vaccinated against Q Fever, and veterinarians working with wildlife such as bats protect themselves by being vaccinated against lyssavirus. Veterinarians routinely vaccinate dogs against parvovirus, rabbits against calicivirus and horses against strangles or Hendra virus. 

In highlighting the power of vaccination, I wanted to remind you of the incredible benefits it has brought to animals and people the world over. Having vaccines is critical – and something we must never take for granted – and as our communities rely on us for advice, part of veterinarians’ trusted role as advocates for animal health and welfare, is to educate and empower those around us about the life-changing importance of vaccination.