As the end-of-summer approaches, in the past few weeks millions of parents have shuttled their children to multiple doctors’ appointments, often stressing over the pressure to remain compliant with school district-specific vaccination schedules. It’s a hassle, to say nothing of the difficulty many parents experience while watching their children recoil in pain from needle pricks, or the confusion many have over common misunderstandings about the ingredients in various vaccines.

Parents will hopefully find comfort in the knowledge that this is settled science. As it turns out, there are important reasons to adhere to the immunization calendars (for reference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, offers a comprehensive list of vaccines by age group)—reasons even apart from the guarantee that one’s children be allowed to re-enroll in school. To appreciate this, it is perhaps important to parse the good science out from the bad. And to this end, animal research plays a vital role.

Unfortunately, public health victories in the United States like the near-elimination of measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, polio, diphtheria, and meningitis did not begin and end with the discovery of vaccines that protect against these diseases. Gaps in vaccination have slowed (and, in some cases, reversed) progress toward a more complete eradication of many illnesses, leading to outbreaks that have endangered many people, especially children. The New York Times reports that, if the number of eligible students vaccinated against measles dips to fewer than 90 to 95 percent, major outbreaks will result. A single sick patient can infect more than two dozen unvaccinated people, and in the United States, four million people were infected with measles each year in the 1950s.

Before the polio vaccine, thousands of patients were confined to iron lung machines like the one pictured above

Before the polio vaccine, thousands of patients were confined to iron lung machines like the one pictured above

Thankfully, recent animal studies have led to improvements in available vaccines, as well as new prevention methods that might be used in the future to bridge the vaccination gap—whether it’s caused by limited access for people living in the developing world, or by parental suspicions about vaccines in the west. Researchers typically begin with cell cultures and embryos, thereafter testing drug therapies in species like mice, rodents, and rabbits before moving to larger non-human primate models. These studies, which are credited with paving the way for vaccinations against diseases like polio, measles, and rubella, have contributed to the body of medical knowledge a comprehensive understanding of how immunizations work.

Recent research, especially with primate models, has offered a more complete picture of the human immune system that has improved existing vaccines while proving their safety and effectiveness in people. For example, it was a study with rhesus macaque monkeys that led scientists to conclude that vaccines do not cause neurobiological changes in the brain, thereby dispelling popular—and dangerous—myths about connections between immunizations and disorders on the autism spectrum.

Animal studies have historically been, and today remain, a critically important step in the pathway from preclinical research to the widespread administration of lifesaving vaccines. Additionally, more comprehensive understandings of the human immune system that have resulted from animal research have led to promising developments in the search for vaccines against diseases like Zika, HIV/AIDS, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV, which accounts for most of the respiratory tract infections in US infants and small children), Ebola, Dengue, and the H5 and H7 bird flu strains.

By dispelling myths about the dangers of vaccines, while simultaneously buttressing the body of medical knowledge with more evidence of the effectiveness and recommended guidelines for administering immunizations—and by paving the way for future breakthroughs—animal research remains fundamentally good science. Parents can credit decades of studies with animal models for achievements like the near-eradication of polio, which has made the world considerably safer for children. And they can look forward to innovations like the dissolvable microneedle patch, developed with rhesus macaques, which could make measles vaccines a less painful part of their children’s back-to-school immunization schedule.

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