A Brief History of Vaccines

Vaccines have been around for centuries, and have a colorful, fascinating history. As parents, we may take for granted the different vaccinations that we, and our children, receive.

We go into the doctor’s office or clinic, get a shot or two and then walk out with our bodies’ defenses ready to block out different diseases. But how did this all start? What brought about the development of the vaccine?

The basic definition of a vaccine is that it is a solution, usually injected, made up of a weakened or dead strain of the disease we are trying to prevent. The body recognizes the attacker, destroys it, and builds up an immunity against it for the future.

“Vaccines are primers to the immune system against a specific disease,” says Dr. Heidi Hillesland, an infectious disease doctor at Kauai Medical Clinic.”The initial immune response we have when we encounter a pathogen is generic and therefore, not very effective. However, after we are exposed to building blocks of a pathogen, our bodies generate a targeted and robust immune response.”

This is the way antibodies work – they help our bodies build up immunity by reacting to a particular bug. So, when we come into contact with that disease, we don’t become sick.

Vaccines Go Way Back

Widespread diseases such as whooping cough, polio, and measles used to wipe out huge groups of the population. With so many people dying from these diseases, including children, people began to search for a solution. The vaccines slowly began to come about.

Many historians believe that the first attempts at creating vaccines go as far back as the year 1000.

The First Vaccine Against Smallpox

Vaccines, as we recognize them today, probably did not exist until sometime in the 18th century. In England, a doctor named Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had caught cowpox did not become ill from smallpox.

Smallpox is a terrible disease that left many people severely scarred and killed one out of every three people!

Trying to understand the link between these two diseases, Jenner immunized a child against cowpox.

Afterward, he exposed that same child to smallpox several times over the following months.

The boy never caught smallpox.

A New Field of Science: Vaccinology

Jenner’s tests turned out to be the start of vaccinology – a field of science committed to vaccines. Fun fact, the word vaccine comes from the Latin word vaccinus, which means “cow”: because of these early experiments with cowpox.)

After Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine against rabies in 1885, vaccinology quickly spread and led to the development of immunizations and serums against many other terrible diseases: diphtheria, lockjaw, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, Bacillus anthracis, and the plague, among others.

In the mid-twentieth century, the science of immunology could now produce antibodies in the lab, which prompted the improvement of vaccines for polio and other diseases that affect kids like mumps, measles, and rubella.

These developments changed history. Before, if one child had this disease, it was likely to spread to – and kill – other children that were nearby.

Herd Immunity

‘Community immunity,’ or ‘herd immunity,’ essentially means that when the majority of the population have built up immunity to a disease, the likelihood of people catching and spreading the infection is very slim.

This helps protect individuals that are not old enough to get a vaccine, such as children under the age of one.

Children don’t receive the MMR vaccine until they are at least 12 months old, leaving them vulnerable until that age.

Monitoring of Vaccines

As the use of vaccines gained popularity and was provided to individuals around the world, concerns began to surface about their safety.

Specific laws were put into place over the years to ensure that vaccines continued to be monitored and standardized. For example, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) in 1986, which requires two main conditions.

First, doctors are required to give patients a Vaccine Information Statement (VIS), which explains the vaccination in detail.

Second, doctors are required to report any severe side effects or reactions following immunization. Even if the symptoms are possibly not related to the vaccine, the doctor will send a report to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

There were whole agencies created in the government to watch over vaccines, and how they are given out to children.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires strict testing and research before it will approve new vaccines.

The Unfortunate Rise of Misinformation

Even though these legal safeguards are in place, many people receive inaccurate information in the media that suggests certain vaccines have dangerous long term effects. This has caused an increase in diseases that were almost unheard of, including measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).

Millions and millions of people who potentially could have been killed by measles were saved by vaccines. Surprisingly, though, this new spread of fear – mainly through the Internet- has led to some parents refusing vaccinations.

One scary result is outbreaks of diseases, with several cases of measles popping up around the country.

The vaccines that children receive in the United States are proven to be safe and effective. Misinformation, such as the idea that certain vaccines cause autism, has been refuted by scientists and proven to be false.

Sticking with Science

Doctors have faith in the vaccination process, and recommend them for all people, from newborns to those in old age.

If you have any question or concerns about vaccinations, your doctor, or your child’s pediatrician, is just a phone call or visit away.

Additionally, it’s essential to stay on top of your child’s vaccinations and keep records of their immunizations.

The history of vaccinations is complex. From the early days of fighting smallpox with cowpox to the development of vaccines that prevent diseases such as polio and measles, vaccines have been saving countless lives. Make sure that you take full advantage of the powerful vaccines that we have available so that your little ones can live long, healthy lives.