The History of the Vaccine: Looking Back (and Forward!) at Immunizations

Published: August 6, 2019

The History of the Vaccine: Looking Back (and Forward!) at Immunizations

August is National Immunization Month, and to raise awareness of the importance of helping to prevent certain diseases, we’re looking back—and to the future—at the history of vaccines, which have revolutionized medicine and saved millions of lives throughout history.

The First Vaccine

There is evidence that as early as 1,000 years ago, the ancient Chinese may have crushed smallpox scabs from the infected and inhaled or rubbed them into their own skin to immunize themselves. There’s evidence of this practice in Africa and the Middle East as well before it spread to Europe.

In the 1500s, diseases such as smallpox, measles, and whooping cough were widespread. Records from the 1600s show that almost 30% of children died before age 15.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, these diseases were introduced to the native people. With no natural resistance, millions died over the following decades. Records indicate that 80% to 95% of the population perished as a direct result.

By the 1700s, Europe was desperate for relief from infectious diseases. The first true vaccine wasn’t developed until 1796 when Edward Jenner developed a smallpox vaccine in Britain. By infecting a smallpox patient with a similar, but far less harmful disease known as cowpox, Jenner could inoculate patients more safely.

This vaccine eventually led to the eradication of naturally occurring smallpox in 1980. Smallpox now exists only in two labs: one in Atlanta, Georgia and one in Russia.

From Smallpox to Rabies and Anthrax

The technique that Jenner used to vaccinate against smallpox—infect an individual with a far less harmful version of the disease to develop an immunity to its more lethal counterpart, a technique inoculation—is what Louis Pasteur used to develop the vaccines for rabies and anthrax.

From Rabies and Anthrax on…

Maurice Hilleman went on to use this inoculation method to successfully vaccinate people against measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Hemophilus influenzae.

Herd Immunity

Today, medical vaccinations are critical to the health and safety of our communities, and to preserve the integrity of herd immunity, a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of the community immunizes against a disease, lowering and eventually eliminating the occurrence of certain diseases. In the 1970s, paired with the measles vaccine of the 60s, herd immunity played a critical role in reining in measles outbreaks in the US.

When we stop vaccinating, the integrity of our herd immunity is compromised, which can mean new cases of preventable diseases, and then large outbreaks. People who cannot safely receive immunizations due to health complications rely on their communities to keep them from becoming infected.

Babies cannot be immunized before a certain age. New parents are advised to reduce the risk of exposure to diseases by avoiding people who aren’t current on immunizations—imagine not being able to see your new grandbaby because you missed a shot!

The Future of Vaccines

Now, scientists are working hard to both improve current vaccines and develop vaccines for new diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and a tuberculosis vaccine for adults. Certain cancers, dementia, and other ailments are also on the roster.

Scientists are also looking at new development techniques, such as DNA vaccines, which are injected into the muscles and provide the immense immune response to fight diseases like malaria, for which there is no vaccine.

Other methods of delivery are also being explored: such as the work-in-progress nasal spray vaccine for influenza. Patch applications use patches that have many tiny needles to inject the vaccine rather than one large syringe. The patch is promising especially for use in areas that tend to have extremely hot climates, such as Africa and South America, due to the very cold temperatures vaccines require for proper storage and travel.

Did you learn anything new about vaccines? Tell us on Facebook!

Questions or concerns? Talk to your doctor!