Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Miracle of Vaccines (And Our New Year Resolution)

December 16, 2013

Every year, for the last few years, I have been sending the same Christmas card to friends and colleagues.

Although it looks indeed as a representation of a traditional Holy Family, very proper for the Christmas season at least in the Latin American tradition, the story is much more complex.

The scene is actually from a fresco painted by the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886 -1957) and it represents, not the Holy Family, but the act of vaccination.  

The “Vaccination” fresco is one of the Detroit Industry Murals painted between 1932 and 1933 at the enclosed courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The panels were painted in a period of nine months, time during which Rivera was accompanied by his wife Frida Kahlo, another well-known Mexican artist (whom, incidentally, was stricken with polio when she was six year old).

Rivera was a very controversial figure, and he was even defined as a “prototypic Communist painter”. Nevertheless, Rivera was fascinated by the American industrial might and his Detroit panels were indeed supported by the Ford’ family. 

The vaccination fresco offended some people in Detroit, who deemed it to blasphemous, “un-American” and Marxist propaganda and it was almost destroyed. The publicity created by those criticisms attracted many visitors which ultimately (and fortunately) saved the fresco.

Rivera argued that his fresco actually represented the act of Vaccination, where a child is immunized by a nurse and a doctor. The white cap of the nurse and the blond hair of the child have the effect of a halo. In the background three scientists, like the biblical wise men, are engaged in what appears to be a research experiment. The horse and the cow are actually related to the origin of the first vaccine ever, the vaccine against smallpox (the word “vaccine” derived from the Latin name for cow, which is vacca).

That first vaccine was developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner, a rural doctor in England, and that vaccine led to the eradication of smallpox declared in 1980. The “miracle of vaccination” has been repeated many times, and today we have vaccines against many other diseases that for centuries have plagued mankind. The next big challenge we have today is to eradicate polio, with vaccines that were originally developed in the 1950s and 60s. But, in the meantime, the miracle of vaccines continue, and they have been critical in reducing the under-5 child mortality, from 20 million in 1960 to 6,6 million in 2012.

That is a real miracle, but we have to get better our new year resolution should be to extend the gift of vaccines to all children in the world.

By the way, Diego Rivera also painted a fresco at the Rockefeller Center, but it was destroyed in 1934, even before it was completed, because it included an image of Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade. The Detroit Vaccination mural was depicted in a 1988 Mexican postal stamp to commemorate World Health Day.  

We have come a long way in vaccination since the 1930s when this mural was painted, but there is still a long road ahead to ensuring that all children receive the life-saving vaccines they need. Here’s wishing you, your family, and all children around the world a happy and healthy 2014.

To find out how you can get involved to support vaccination efforts, click here.

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