Articles

Artists Give Vaccines a Much-Needed Shot in the Arm

Alexia Sinclair, "Edward Jenner’s Smallpox Discovery" (All images courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)
Alexia Sinclair, “Edward Jenner’s Smallpox Discovery” (all images courtesy the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

Edward Jenner isn’t exactly a household name, yet the inventor of the modern vaccination is often credited with saving more lives than any other human being in the history of the world. It all started in 1796, when he noticed that milkmaids who contracted a disease called cowpox never developed smallpox, a “speckled monster” then killing hundreds of thousands of people every year. Jenner inoculated a boy named James Phipps with the milder disease to see if it would make him immune against the deadlier one. It worked.

This remarkable story plays out in a photograph taken by Alexia Sinclair for the new vaccination awareness campaign The Art of Saving a Life (ASAL), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to be rolled out over the next month. At the left side of the image, an actor dressed as Jenner injects the vaccine into Phipps’s arm. An aristocratic woman sits at center, reminding us that smallpox was a disease that affected the rich and poor alike. Despite the indoor scene, wildflowers grow up around them, a reference to how the Chinese referred to the disease. They called it “heavenly flowers,” because the skin lesions resembled blooms, and these often resulted in death.

Sinclair’s sickly sweet image is one of ASAL’s 30 commissioned works of photography, visual art, and literature by people like Annie Leibowitz, Vik Muniz, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that tell of the different ways vaccines have crucially impacted history.

One black-and-white photograph by Mary Ellen Marks shows a woman named Damali Ashman shopping in a New York grocery store. Her eyes are clouded by blindness, a result of the disease rubella, which affected hundreds of pregnant women in the city during the 1960s and ’70s. ” … [Congenital rubella syndrome] can be completely prevented with rubella vaccine, which is widely available in wealthy countries, and used increasingly in poorer countries,” the accompanying text explains. “About 100,000 children are still born with CRS every year.”

Mary Ellen Marks, "Damali shopping at BJ's. Westbury, New York 2014"
Mary Ellen Marks, “Damali shopping at BJ’s. Westbury, New York 2014”

Promoting vaccination has been one of the Gates Foundation’s biggest initiatives. In 2010, it invested $10 billion in a 10-year program to develop vaccines for AIDS, tuberculosis, rota virus, and pneumonia. That came after a $4.5 billion investment in vaccination research and was followed by a $1.5 billion donation to the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership that delivers vaccines to children in developing nations. Though the drugs are cheap, 1.5 million children — many of them in poor countries — still die from vaccine-preventable diseases every year. That’s one every 20 seconds.

The Gates Foundation has previously launched awareness campaigns, but ASAL is the first that taps the influence of creatives. When asked by The Wall Street Journal about why the foundation chose this approach, Dr. Orin Levine, director of its vaccine-delivery program, responded that vaccination is “often the kind of work that people don’t know about — they don’t talk about, they don’t understand well,” he said. “From my standpoint, I thought it was a great opportunity to try and engage art and the art community to help us spark that conversation.”

Like Alexia Sinclair's photograph, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz's contribution references smallpox's association with flowers. But these flowers are actually made from tiny liver cells infected with the smallpox vaccine virus. Titled "Flowers — the Beauty of Vaccines," Muniz writes that  it "allows the audience to draw a deeper appreciation for how the Vaccinia (smallpox) vaccine and cells interact."
Like Alexia Sinclair’s photograph, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s contribution references smallpox’s association with flowers. But Muniz’s flowers are actually made from tiny liver cells infected with the smallpox vaccine virus. Titled “Flowers — the Beauty of Vaccines,” Muniz writes that it “allows the audience to draw a deeper appreciation for how the Vaccinia (smallpox) vaccine and cells interact.”

It’s also high-profile enough to make it difficult for the White House to ignore. On January 27, President Obama will meet with other world leaders in Berlin to discuss their funding commitment to GAVI for the next five years. The United States has been asked to pledge $1 billion. “[If] people see this art and they’re moved … Then what we would do is encourage them to voice their support for GAVI and for the vaccine alliance to be fully re-funded,” Levine said.

But the campaign is also obviously meant to counter one of immunization’s most outspoken foes: the growing crusade that claims it’s linked to autism. Poster child Jenny McCarthy once told Fox News that “us moms aren’t treating autism, we are treating a vaccine injury. And when you treat the vaccine injury, the autism goes away, minimizes or disappears.”

Mauro Perucchetti's contribution, "Vaccines as Love Serum," melds two of his most famous resin sculptures.
Mauro Perucchetti’s contribution, “Vaccines as Love Serum,” melds two of his most famous resin sculptures.

That idea originated in a 1998 article published in The Lancet that suggested a link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. Author Andrew Wakefield’s research was later found to be less than exemplary; he even collected blood samples at his son’s birthday party. Eventually, the paper was discredited and his medical license taken away, but serious damage had been done. Though anti-vaccinators represent a relatively small percentage of the population, their numbers are still growing — despite that no one’s ever been able to duplicate Wakefield’s results. (For an explanation of why autism is likely not linked to vaccination, read Maki Naro’s excellent comic).

A brutal irony of contemporary life might be that while some privileged Westerners choose to keep their children unvaccinated, parents in impoverished countries often lose their own to preventable diseases. “If you go to the parts of Africa that are prone to these huge epidemics of bacterial meningitis that come in waves every three to five years … they’re not worried about the things that US actresses are worried about,” Levine said. “They want that vaccine. They stand in 100-degree temperatures for hours in line to get them and their families vaccinated.” Getting that vaccines to them can be a difficult process, though, as one animated cartoon by Christoph Niemann on ASAL shows. The artist used a mother and baby bird to illustrate how heat-sensitive vaccines are delicately transported to the developing world. “A lot of work remains to be done,” he wrote.

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