With the vaccine race burning a path for a global answer to COVID-19, it is fitting that August is National Immunization Awareness. This annual observation recognizes the long history of vaccinations while bringing the topic to communities around the nation. 

Dr. Andrew Thompson

Among the thousands of alumni from the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus, Andrew Thompson ’06, MD, is a physician at St. Luke’s Infectious Disease Associates in Duluth, Minn. As a board certified expert in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases with the American Board of Internal Medicine, his insight has not only educated patients about vaccines but also current medical school students. In the spring of each year, Dr. Thompson serves as a guest lecturer in the Immunology-Hematology course that introduces Duluth campus medical students to the science of blood, blood-forming organs as well as blood diseases. 

“The lecture focuses on the theory and practical application of vaccines,” Dr. Thompson said. “There’s also a community panel where the participants include a school nurse and the St. Luke’s travel nurse. The students learn about the ethical and practical issues as well as vaccine hesitancy. We discuss the kind of difficult conversations they might have with patients. The panel is a great way for students to hear from different medical community perspectives to deepen their knowledge about what they might experience with their patients.”

Over the past five years, Dr. Thompson has taught the vaccination lecture series. He acknowledges that understanding vaccines is the key to help patients make educated choices. While he advocates for adhering to an established vaccine schedule, physicians need to understand that there are families who desire flexibility. 

“Part of the panel discussion is teaching students that every patient needs to be heard and needs to be seen. The undesired consequence of a flexible vaccine schedule, however, is possibly missing dosages and being under-immunized,” he said. “We emphasize that the vaccine schedule was created by experts with a wealth of evidence to support it. They designed the most effective, comprehensive vaccine schedule, which is the schedule that physicians encourage their patients to follow.”

While this schedule is a traditional part of physician-patient conversations today, that was not always the case. The history of vaccinations in the Western world is marked in 1798 when the first smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner. The 20th century continued to experience developments in vaccinations that Dr. Thompson acknowledges were the platform for incredible advances where childhood diseases all but disappeared for those who choose the vaccination schedule for their offspring.

“There are more vaccines now and more conditions that we once thought were benign,” Dr. Thompson said. “We now know they are not benign. For instance, chickenpox can create horrible outcomes for kids who get it, and for older adults who got it, they can have major side effects later on in life.” 

In the mid-1990s, the chickenpox vaccine became available and was added to the vaccine schedule. Another example is the meningitis HIB vaccine that arrived in the 1980s. By administering these shots to children, mortality rates have plummeted and childhood illnesses that were once life-threatening are, for the most part, no longer a household concern.

“When I think about the curriculum for the lecture series that I teach in the spring, I emphasize the rationale behind our current recommendations,” Dr. Thompson said. “We talk about some of the sentiments regarding vaccine hesitancy that students will encounter when discussing vaccination with patients. It’s easy to take for granted, but immunizations are truly the most important medical intervention that we have; apart from clean water, nothing has been as effective at saving lives.”