The Google Doodle for Thursday celebrates virologist Michiaki Takahashi, who produced the first chickenpox vaccine.
Takahashi’s infant kid became critically ill in 1963. The young youngster had a high temperature, and his body was covered in waves of small red pimples that soon became into blisters and finally open wounds. He’d become one of millions of children in the United States who contracted chickenpox every year (till 1995). And his father, a Japanese doctor on a research fellowship at Baylor University, determined to do something about it.
Father of the Year
Soon after returning to Japan in 1965, Takahashi began working on a vaccination that would prevent children like his son from contracting chickenpox. He began with a sample of Varicella zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox, from a youngster sick with the illness.
That would have been the end of the narrative 200 years ago. Throughout the 1800s, doctors who wished to vaccinate their patients against smallpox merely collected pus and scabs from people infected with cowpox and horsepox – which aren’t nearly as contagious as smallpox.
They just massaged the virus-laden goo into incisions or scratches on the patient’s arm, which makes getting an injection, especially one of something that’s never been in another person’s body, seem like a walk in the park.
Fortunately, by 1965, virologists like Takahashi had access to more scientific knowledge. Takahashi spent the next 9 years cultivating Varicella zoster in human and guinea pig cell cultures, progressively producing a weaker variant of the virus. This weakened, or attenuated, variety became known as the Oka strain, and it is still the basis of the vaccination that protects children against chickenpox and older adults against shingles today.
The chickenpox vaccine was introduced in Japan in 1986 and in the United States in 1995. Since then, millions of children in more than 80 countries have received the vaccine.
What Exactly Is Chickenpox?
Chickenpox is a viral infection caused by the Varicella zoster virus. The majority of the time, it affects young children, creating an itchy or painful rash that progresses into blisters that rupture and scab over. Fever, headaches, and weariness accompany the rash.
V. zoster is also responsible for another sickness known as shingles. While chickenpox is typically associated with infancy, shingles is more commonly associated with elderly persons. This is due to the virus’s intricate life cycle, which we still do not fully comprehend. The virus causes chickenpox when a person initially becomes infected with V. zoster. After roughly a week, the patient is healthy and no longer contagious — but the virus may be lurking nearby.
V. zoster can remain dormant in a person’s nerve cells for decades, which we don’t fully understand. When it reactivates, for reasons we don’t fully understand, it generates shingles: a much more painful rash with blisters. Because the virus attacks the nerves, the agony from shingles can remain even after the blisters heal.
Adults over the age of 50 can be immunised against shingles; the vaccine is a higher dose of the virus’s weakened Oka strain.
Yes, the Vaccine Is Effective.
No vaccination provides perfect, impenetrable immunity to disease, but an effective vaccine can substantially change the odds in a person’s favor. The chickenpox vaccine is approximately 90% effective at preventing infection and more than 95% successful at preventing serious illness (which means that if you do become sick, your symptoms are likely to be a lot milder if you’ve been vaccinated).
According to the CDC, “chickenpox immunization prevents more than 3.5 million cases of chickenpox, 9,000 hospitalizations, and 100 fatalities in the United States each year.”
Prior to 1995, over 4 million children in the United States were infected with chickenpox each year. For the majority of them, it meant a week of agonizing headaches and persistent itching. However, for some 12,000 people each year, the infection was severe enough to necessitate hospitalization — and approximately 100 to 150 children perished from chickenpox each year. By 2005, ten years after the chickenpox vaccine was launched in the United States, chickenpox cases had reduced by almost 90% nationally.
In absolute numbers, chickenpox had a low death toll when compared to other childhood scourges such as polio, which killed thousands of children in its peak years in the early twentieth century. It had the potential to be lethal, but it was more often than not just extremely painful. Today, however, a basic picture will suffice. It had the potential to be lethal, but it was more often than not just extremely painful. Today, however, a single shot can prevent that pain and save the lives of 150 youngsters each year.
That’s a significant legacy.
Michiaki Takahashi died on December 16, 2013 after being born on February 17, 1928. His 94th birthday would have been today.