An Ode to Vaccines

Conversations with Katie | January 12, 2021

President & CEO Katie Smith Sloan takes a moment to bask in the hope that arrived alongside the COVID-19 vaccines.

A few months ago, a friend of mine got her DPT vaccination. That news surprised me, given the fact that the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine is usually administered to young children—and my friend is well past 60.

My friend was following the advice of her doctor to get her shot so she could protect her new grandchild, arriving in April, from pertussis. Often referred to as “whooping cough,” pertussis can be a deadly disease for infants who are too young to receive their own DPT vaccine but can still be infected by asymptomatic adults.

After that conversation with my friend, I marveled at the miracle of vaccines. I marveled even more this week when I learned in The New York Times just how successful the DPT vaccine has been in saving the lives of very young Americans. There were 36,000 pertussis deaths in the U.S., mostly among young infants, from 1926 to 1930—before the DPT vaccine was available. From 1970 to 1974, there were only 52.

The original vaccine wasn’t perfect, of course. But over the years, scientists tinkered with its formula to find ways to reduce its uncomfortable side effects. Along the way, they found ways to protect infants by vaccinating adults. They learned that administering the DPT booster to all pregnant women could prevent virtually all deaths from pertussis in the first 2 months of life.

News about the DPT vaccine wouldn’t normally give me goose bumps. Having grown up with vaccinations, I’ve taken their miraculous, life-saving power for granted.

The coronavirus pandemic changed all that. As we welcome a vaccine that has been proven effective in tackling the virus we’ve been fighting these past 10 months, I no longer take any vaccine for granted.

Clearly, 2021 is a perfect time to get goose bumps over vaccines.

It’s also a time to be grateful. In his New York Times column, Dr. Perry Klass praised “the remarkable progress in vaccine technology that has given us vaccines that target COVID-19 so elegantly and specifically.” I second that.

And it’s time to be hopeful. The pandemic we’ve been battling for the past 10 months will eventually end. We know that now. As we see older adults and the people who care for them receiving their vaccine doses, we can dare to look forward to brighter days.

Don’t get me wrong. We are not there yet. The vaccine rollout is a monumental task—a logistical puzzle that has its share of challenges. I assure you that LeadingAge continues to advocate vigorously for steps to smooth out those bumps in the road, to develop a stronger national role in the vaccination program, to make sure the millions of older adults who do not live in nursing homes and assisted living communities, but who are also at serious risk of infection, receive the vaccine as soon as possible.

In the midst of this advocacy effort, we are ever mindful of what a wonderful gift this vaccine is, especially for those of you who are still fighting to keep care recipients and yourselves safe. Tragically, our most recent surges are fiercer and more dangerous than anything we have experienced thus far.

In the midst of your ongoing struggles with the virus, I urge you to set aside time today to take a deep breath and rejoice. For the first time, our world is able to take proactive steps, rather than reactive ones, to defeat this virus. The pandemic is not over. But, thankfully, we appear to be at the beginning of the end.

Bask in that good news, even for just a few minutes. Feel the hope we have been missing for so many months. You deserve it.