Forget landing on the Moon or inventing the computer, I think the smallpox vaccination campaign, which eliminated a hideous disease that in the 20th century alone killed more than 300 million people, is one of mankind’s greatest achievements.
And it’s a gift that keeps on giving because it could protect you against monkeypox, even if you were vaccinated decades ago.
There have been nearly 200 cases of monkeypox in the UK since the outbreak began four weeks ago.
Although it’s rarely fatal, it can cause a nasty rash that appears first on the palms of your hands and soles of the feet, and then the rest of the body.
How worried should we be about monkeypox? The World Health Organisation says ‘at the moment, we are not concerned of a pandemic’, but it is monitoring events.
What is particularly impressive is that decades later, when people who were inoculated as babies are re-tested, they still show a strong protective antibody response to smallpox (the record so far is someone who was inoculated more than 90 years ago)
One worry is that as monkeypox spreads it may mutate into something much more contagious, as Covid did.
One bit of good news, at least if you are over 51 years old, is that you may already be protected against monkeypox by the smallpox vaccine, which, until 1971, was routinely given to young children (the vaccines were stopped when smallpox was no longer considered a risk in the UK).
Smallpox is related to monkeypox and studies suggest that the vaccines for smallpox also offer 85 per cent protection against monkeypox.
What is particularly impressive is that decades later, when people who were inoculated as babies are re-tested, they still show a strong protective antibody response to smallpox (the record so far is someone who was inoculated more than 90 years ago).
This could help explain why the majority of cases of monkeypox have been in people under 50. So a big thanks to my parents for getting me inoculated.
But the smallpox vaccine is not the only one that provides some unexpected benefits.
Flu jabs protect against dementia
It might seem unlikely, but a vaccination against the flu — or pneumonia — not only protects you against these diseases but also reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s.
That was the conclusion of a study from the University of Texas Health Science Center in the U.S., based on the health records of more than 9,000 people — those who had an annual flu jab were 13 per cent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who didn’t; with the pneumonia jab, they were up to 40 per cent less likely to develop the condition.
One theory is that the vaccines prevent inflammation which can spread to your brain.
It might seem unlikely, but a vaccination against the flu — or pneumonia — not only protects you against these diseases but also reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s
Yellow fever and breast cancer
Yellow fever is a rather more exotic vaccine, which you tend to have for travelling to some parts of Africa and South America.
Rather surprisingly, the vaccine may also protect women against breast cancer.
In a ten-year study by the University of Padua in Italy, researchers tracked more than 12,000 women who’d been immunised against yellow fever and found that those who’d had the jab between the ages of 40 to 54 had nearly half the chance of developing breast cancer in the two years after vaccination compared to women who were not vaccinated.
Strangely, the jab didn’t offer the same protection to women given it before 40 or after 54.
The yellow fever vaccine contains a live, but weakened, virus (which you also find in the chickenpox and polio vaccines) — it’s thought that the live virus stirs up the immune system, which then also destroys breast cancer cells at a very early stage in the disease, before they become aggressive, which they’re more likely to do in younger women.
Shingles and stroke risk
Having a vaccine to prevent shingles may also reduce your risk of having a stroke.
Shingles is caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus which lies dormant in the nerves after the original infection, and can cause a rash with lasting nerve pain. It’s common in people over 50, though you have to be over 70 to be offered a free vaccine on the NHS.
As well as preventing shingles, the vaccine may reduce your risk of stroke by nearly 20 per cent, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., based on the medical records of a million people aged 66 or older. Like the vaccines against flu and pneumonia, the benefit may be due to reduced inflammation.
Tuberculosis and bladder cancer
In the UK more than 10,300 people are diagnosed with bladder cancer every year.
Surprisingly, one of the frontline treatments, which helps prevent it spreading or coming back, is an injection of BCG, a vaccine made up of weakened bacteria that you’re given as a child to protect you against tuberculosis (TB).
As with the yellow fever vaccine it seems to encourage your immune system to become active and kill off cancer cells that might grow back, or that are left behind.
It is part of an exciting approach to preventing and treating cancer, known as immunotherapy, which holds great promise for the future.
So there you go. At a time when the anti-vax movement is stronger than ever, these are some more reasons to celebrate the remarkable things that vaccines can protect us from — and a reminder of why you really do want to keep up with your jabs.
Dance to boost your brain
Recently I did a podcast on the health benefits of dancing, part of a series I present called Just One Thing.
As I discovered when interviewing dancer-turned-neuroscientist Dr Julia Christensen from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, dancing not only boosts your muscles and balance, it can even increase the size of your brain.
But is it just because dancing is a great form of exercise?
In a recent study from Japan, brain scans on people before and after listening to the sort of music that makes you want to strut your stuff showed it has a beneficial impact on our brains, particularly on ‘executive function’ — i.e. skills such as concentration and planning.
While the researchers didn’t suggest why, one theory is that this is because music has a complex neurological and multisensory effect on us.
So the next time your boss catches you dancing by the water fountain, you can always say ‘I’m working on my personal development’ — and quote me.
As I discovered when interviewing dancer-turned-neuroscientist Dr Julia Christensen from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, dancing not only boosts your muscles and balance, it can even increase the size of your brain. But is it just because dancing is a great form of exercise?
Go to work on an egg — the Queen does!
I don’t have a lot in common with the Queen but like her, I enjoy scrambled eggs for breakfast. They’re a great source of protein and nutrients.
My knowledge of Her Majesty’s eating habits isn’t based on time spent at the Palace but on a ‘cook and tell’ book published years ago by one of her former chefs.
I was delighted to see the Queen is a fan of eggs (apparently she prefers brown ones), because until recently they were being demonised due to concerns that as they contain quite high levels of cholesterol, they must be bad for you. Yet study after study, including one in 2018, which looked at nearly half a million adults in China, have shown that people who eat eggs have substantially lower rates of heart disease and stroke than those who don’t.
Now a new study, from Peking University in China, has revealed why.
Based on blood samples from nearly 5,000 people — some of whom had heart disease and some of whom didn’t — the researchers found that those who on average ate an egg a day not only had lower rates of heart disease but also had higher levels of HDL (‘good’) cholesterol.
HDL helps clear ‘bad’ cholesterol from blood vessels and protects against the blockages that can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
As well as eggs or kippers for breakfast, the Queen apparently likes quite plain food, such as meat or fish with veg, and tends to avoid starchy potatoes and rice.
But like me, she also has a sweet tooth and a passion for chocolate. Whatever she is doing, it is certainly working.
I don’t have a lot in common with the Queen but like her, I enjoy scrambled eggs for breakfast. They’re a great source of protein and nutrients