Staying Vigilant

Keeping our relatives safe as new viruses emerge

By Sophia Marjanovic

Getting vaccines can help individuals resist illness and also build up “herd immunity” that can help protect vulnerable community members. Photo: Rhoda Baer, via Wikimedia Commons

Every day that we exist on this earth, from our first breath to last breath, can result in death from foreign substances. Allergies to pollen, chemicals, foods, insect bites, microbes or substances getting into dry skin cracks or cuts of our bodies can all take a toll. The human immune system is extremely diverse in order to defend our bodies against foreign substances.

As a Lakota with a Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology, I have become adept at learning how our immune systems protect us from foreign invasions in order to advocate for Native Americans to stay vigilant about emerging infections and uphold protective practices. These include getting the latest vaccines when a new infectious agent begins to spread, especially among our animal relatives.

A new strain of COVID-19 is emerging in Singapore, and the H5N1 flu virus is emerging with pandemic potential. A recent study shows that COVID-19 has persisted in being more deadly than the flu. Native Americans therefore cannot afford to take risks regarding infections. Considering the fact that the H5N1 flu virus, which has been monitored for years for pandemic potential, was confirmed to have infected a human in March 2024, and more than half of cats fed raw milk from cows infected with H5N1 flu virus have died, we need to do our best to uphold protective practices for the safety of our relatives.

Native Americans susceptible to dying from infection

While a high level of diversity in our immune system helps to defend against the billions of foreign substances that we encounter every day, in less frequent cases, human immune systems can be overly ambitious in fighting what it considers invasions and begin to attack the healthy tissues of a person’s body instead of attacking foreign substances. When the immune system attacks the healthy tissues of a person’s body, this is known as autoimmunity.

The impacts of colonialism, from our ancestors having to survive an onslaught of new germs to the sustained traumatic impacts of colonialism, has resulted in Native Americans having the highest rates of autoimmune diseases compared to any other group. People with autoimmune diseases are at higher risk of getting infections due to their immune systems essentially being spread thin in treating healthy tissues as foreign substances.

Because Native Americans disproportionately have the highest percentage of disabled people  as well as the highest rates of autoimmune diseases compared to other groups in the United States, Native Americans are likely to experience more hardships from any infectious disease that emerges among human beings. 

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that Native Americans disproportionately were infected, hospitalized and died from SARS‑CoV‑2, the virus that launched the pandemic. Native Americans were also four times more likely to die from the H1N1 virus that caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

These concerning trends must compel us to be proactive in keeping our communities safe, such as by upholding protective behaviors. This means washing our hands, wearing masks avoiding raw milk/eggs from infected animals, and getting vaccines when they are available.

Our immune system is not perfect in countering every foreign substance, and that is why we need help from vaccines. Getting a vaccine shot stimulates our immune systems to build up an immune response before actually getting infected by the foreign agents. This helps prevent foreign agents from overwhelming our bodies. 

Infants older than 8 weeks old, elderly people and people with autoimmune disorders often struggle with vaccines protecting them from infections. These same members of the community tend to get infected, get hospitalized and die more from infectious diseases. Therefore, the rest of us who are healthy enough to get vaccinated must be proactive. If enough people get vaccinations, that can provide what is known as “herd immunity” for the general population. This protects people who cannot get vaccinated, such as those with autoimmune disease or other conditions that make vaccinations potentially dangerous for them.

Dendritic cells in the human body engulf viruses, chop them up and display the chopped-up pieces on its surface for other cells to examine. Graphic credit: Sophia Marjanovic. The author has more information how vaccines fit into this process here.

Vaccines preceded colonization

While vaccines have become increasingly controversial due to intentional disinformation campaigns to attack the advancement of universal healthcare, the origins of vaccination to reduce death from infectious diseases come from African and Asian peoples.

Inoculation to reduce death by smallpox was practiced by Asian and African peoples before it began being discussed in Europe. Cotton Mather, famous for his role in the Salem witch trials, had learned from an enslaved African whom Mather named Onesimus that Africans practiced “variolation” in order to protect people from death by smallpox. As he explained in a letter to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Onesimus answered “yes and no” when asked if he had smallpox, because he had undergone an operation of the Guramantese tribe. They had given him something from smallpox that would forever preserve him from getting smallpox.

Public health to protect the people who can die from infectious diseases has origins among Asian and African people, and it was adapted by influential Europeans to advance public health among their communities.

We have seen time and time again that we must be proactive in keeping each other safe. Knowledge is power.

So please uphold practices to keep each other safe such as thoroughly washing your hands for 20 seconds, wearing masks, avoiding raw milk/eggs, and staying up to date with vaccines as they are introduced. The lives of our newborn infants, our elders, our relatives with autoimmune diseases, and your own life depend on your decisions to uphold public health practices to keep each of us safe.

Dr. Sophia Marjanovic, an Indigenous health advocate and writer, is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribes through her mother and also from the Santa Ysabel Iipay Nation through her father. Dr. Marjanovic has her Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology from George Washington University. She volunteers to help new unions organize and uses her scientific background to pass and implement into law transformative pieces of legislation at the county, state and federal levels.

Story published June 13, 2024

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