When vaccination was 'a badge of honor'

This article is an adaptation of our weekly Science newsletter that was originally sent out on June 30, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor

One of my earliest memories involves noticing a weird mark on both my parents’ upper arms. It’s a small circular scar, no bigger than a dime, that also decorates the limbs of some of my aunts and uncles. Why don’t I have one, too, I wondered, and what does it mean? If you were born before the 1970s, dear reader, you probably know the answer: That scar is a badge of honor conferred by the smallpox vaccine. (Above, getting the vaccine in Paris in 1942.)

Smallpox is frequently cited as the only infectious disease humans have managed to eradicate, with the World Health Organization certifying the achievement in 1980. That’s thanks to a global vaccination campaign the WHO started in 1967. No matter how it was administered, the smallpox vaccine left a crater-like scar in the skin because it involved delivering a live version of a related pox virus into the body. The skin around the injection site could then get damaged and scab over, leaving a scar.

In the U.S., an especially bad smallpox outbreak from 1899 to 1904 led many establishments to ask to see a person’s scar as a type of early vaccine passport, History.com reports. Echoing today’s shenanigans with doctored CDC cards, the anti-vaccination holdouts of the early 1900s even went so far as to “forge” their scars using nitric acid, according to the Los Angeles Times. But with advancements in vaccine technology and intensive eradication efforts, the world saw the last natural case of smallpox in 1975—three years before I was born. I got my childhood vaccines for just about everything else (except chicken pox, which went on to play a starring role in what my family lovingly calls “the vacation from hell”), but I’m part of the incredibly fortunate generations that are now spared the threat of smallpox.

The twist in this tale is that for years some combination of complacency and misinformation has been driving down vaccination rates for a variety of other preventable diseases. Brazil, once a vaccination powerhouse, has seen rates plummet since 2015, to the point that it lost its WHO certification for eradicating measles in 2018. That’s only gotten worse in the age of the coronavirus.

As Jill Langlois reports for us, the pandemic may have many adults clamoring for a COVID-19 vaccine, but it has prevented many parents from taking their children in for vaccinations against other diseases, amplifying the existing problem. It’s an extreme example of a worrying trend all over the globe, one the WHO started warning us about last summer. (Above, youths rest on a boat in Brazil’s Paqueta island during a vaccination effort.)

I may not have that smallpox scar, but I appreciate that my parents wear theirs with pride. I fervently hope that one day soon we’ll be able to add to the list of diseases wiped from circulation rather than lamenting resurgences of deadly pathogens we have the power to stop dead in their tracks.

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TODAY IN A MINUTE

This just in: Florida’s governor has signed into a law a bill to strengthen and expand the state’s corridors for wildlife, such as the endangered Florida panther. The $400 million Florida Corridor Wildlife Act recognizes the interconnected web of green spaces throughout much of the state that includes forests, swamps, fields, pastures, timberlands, and even the edges of suburbs, Nat Geo reports. The bill was championed by Nat Geo Explorer Carlton Ward Jr. and the National Geographic Society“Hopefully the success of this project will inspire change throughout the country and the world,” says the society’s CEO, Jill Tiefenthaler.

4,000-year-old snake sculpture found: Archaeologists have unearthed awooden serpentine artifact at Järvensuo I, a site in southwest Finland that encompasses a stretch of peat and mud. The 21-inch-long figurine was found about a foot and a half down in a peat layer at the site. Archaeologist Satu Koivisto told Nat Geo that the discovery of the unassuming artifact “gave us all shivers.”

Extreme drought ranchers: The drought in the American West has dried up pastures and forced some ranchers to sell cattle to others in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. With drier, hotter climes, practices like heavily irrigating pasture may no longer be possible. Instead, selective breeding and sensors monitoring soil and grazing conditions are helping ranchers made the most of things, Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens writes.

Ant eaters: Scientists have long suspected that giant plumose anemone have had an ocean diet of zooplankton and tiny marine invertebrates. They do. But given a chance, the cauliflower-shaped sea creatures will scarf down ants blown into the water from nearby docks; scientists found some of the unlucky insects in their stomachs, Science magazine reports.

Change agents: Many of the communities most at risk from climate extremes, such as heat waves or floods, are the least represented in the field of atmospheric science. As the geosciences look to diversify, Howard University’s success holds lessons, Science reports. But whether the academic program can be replicated or even sustained is in question.

INSTAGRAM OF THE DAY

Beautiful, useful—and dangerous: From the air, it looks like exquisite wall art. But these are actually ponds used to decompose pollutants and treat contaminated water from factories, logging, mining, farming, fracking, and sewage. Sunlight, algae, and oxygen contribute to the stabilization cycle, which eventually results in cleaner, less toxic water. Wastewater ponds are necessary—yet dangerous. Leaks or deliberate discharge of inadequately treated water has polluted freshwater and saltwater ecosystems and has caused disease and health problems in humans, fish, plants, and other wildlife. What can we do? By driving less, buying less, and limiting meat and dairy consumption, we may reduce the need for wastewater treatment.

Related: Hazardous spill highlights environmental threat decades in the making

THE BIG TAKEAWAY

An unknown human ancestor? It has been a busy week on the human origins front. A new look at an old skull found in Israel showed it to be 120,000 to 140,000 years old—roughly a third of the age earlier scientists had figured. More intriguingly, it looked like this smaller-brained hominin may have met up with bigger-brained Homo sapiens, showing a greater diversity of human-like species interacting way back then, Tim Vernimmen writes for Nat Geo.

Related: What the heck is Dragon Man?

THE NIGHT SKIES

Last chance for the spring triangle: As we head into a new season, Northern Hemisphere observers will say goodbye to the spring triangle. For the moment, this formation of three fairly bright stars is easy to spot. Start your search about an hour after sunset, looking in the low western sky for the blue-white star Regulus, above the super-bright planet Venus. To the far south of Regulus is the equally bright bluish star Spica. Look far above this stellar pair for the final and brightest star in the triangle, orange-hued Arcturus. Backyard astronomers find the region of the sky contained within the spring triangle some of the best hunting grounds for galaxies. — Andrew Fazekas

Related: Today is Asteroid Day! Here are a few of the basics.

IN A FEW WORDS

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THE LAST GLIMPSE

Where do we go from here? The long-awaited release of a government report on UFOs, as expected, raised more questions than it answered. Yes, there have been 144 sightings by U.S. government personnel between 2004 and 2021. No, we don’t know what they are, a task force concluded. Weapons or probes from Russia or China? Spoofing, or electronic warfare by an enemy? Says Alex Dietrich, a former Navy pilot who with a flight mate observed an unidentified object in 2004: “If we know it’s out there, and it’s not ours, we are not left with a lot of options that are positive.” (Pictured above, a 2015 video shows Navy aviators’ encounter off the Florida coast with a strange flying object that appears to rotate.)

STRANGE ENCOUNTERS

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard and Monica Williams, and Jen Tse has selected the photos. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for reading, and happy trails.

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