A giant of Australian science died yesterday. The ABC and broadsheets have recorded the death with appropriate respect, honouring Frank Fenner with extensive obituaries. Predictably, the tabloids have largely ignored the moment. After all, the guy only helped save a hundred million lives or so, after keeping Australian agriculture viable. It wasn’t like he took a lot of wickets or anything.
Fenner’s death is not just the passing of a great man, largely unhonoured in his own country. It is symbolic of a hugely important issue, although only Leigh Dayton in The Australian so far has got close to the heart of things.
Since Fenner died a month before his 96th birthday, it’s not as though the papers can claim to have been caught on the hop.
Fenner’s career stretched from the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where he won an OBE for reducing the malarial toll during World War Two, to his statement earlier this year that anthropogenic climate change would see humanity extinct within a century. The latter was a big call, but deserved a better response than the attack he received from Andrew Bolt, who clearly could not come to grip with Fenner’s achievements and place in science.
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In between, Fenner made two major contributions to science, besides playing a major role in the advancement of the John Curtin School of Medical Research and the Fenner School of Environment and Society. His work releasing the myxoma virus made him no friends in the animal liberation movement. Myxomatosis is definitely a terrible way for a rabbit to die. However, it’s worth considering where not only Australian agriculture, but the native environment, would be if the mid-century rabbit plagues had been left unchecked.
However, Fenner’s greatest contribution, and one that desperately needs to be honoured, was his part in the elimination of the smallpox virus. Estimates of the numbers of people who died from smallpox between the 16th century and its elimination are necessarily rough, but range as high as 500 million. That’s Australia 20 times over. While smallpox had largely been driven from the rich world when Fenner came on the scene, it was still killing two million people a year, at a time when the global population was less than half what it is today. Without question, had the World Health Organisation not chosen to act the toll today would put AIDS in the shade.
Fenner’s research helped prove that eradication was possible, and he chaired the body in charge of wiping it out, presenting the announcement of possibly the greatest public health achievement of all time.
The reason that this is more than history is the rise in recent years of the anti-vaccination movement. It is important in saying this to distinguish between opponents of specific vaccines, who often have valid points to make, and those who oppose mass vaccination in general.
Fenner nailed the issue when he said, “If you want to protect children from the vast number of infectious diseases … vaccination is by far the best way to do it. If on the other hand, you wish to act against overpopulation, don’t vaccinate anyone, including your own children.”
Even before the eradication program that Fenner was part of, vaccination was the key to saving hundreds of millions of lives in the parts of the world able to afford it. Moreover, smallpox wasn’t just a killer, it left many more people blind or scarred for life than it actually killed.
The world the anti-vaccinators want us to go back to is one in which diseases such a smallpox and polio cripple our health systems to the point where other conditions cannot possibly get funding. They talk of civil liberties, proclaiming the right to refuse vaccination. Leaving aside the issue of whether any parent has the right to expose their children to such a level of danger and pain, this ignores the central point.
We don’t vaccinate children against smallpox now, because it is extinct. Were it not for a handful of Islamic extremists, whipped up by anti-vaccinators in the West, the same might be true of polio. If a few people choose to remain unvaccinated the disease retains a foothold in the community, ever ready to return. Generation after generation the majority must be vaccinated as long as the disease maintains even a tiny reservoir.
Fenner’s achievement; the first case of an infectious disease being eradicated entirely, demonstrates what is possible. It can happen again, but only if we recognise what Fenner and others did.
*Stephen Luntz’s book Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Fieldguide to Australian Scientists is available through CSIRO Publishing