Imagine you are camping in the woods with your friend Steve. Out of nowhere, a black bear comes out in front of both of you. You’ve never seen a bear before and have no idea what to do so you’re pretty scared. Luckily, Steve was in Boy Scouts, so he learned exactly how to fight off a black bear. “Spread your arms,” he screams, “look as big as possible and start making noise!” After a few seconds, the bear turns around and walks away from you and Steve.
Steve’s prior knowledge of how to fight black bears saved the two of you, similar to how vaccines work by exposing the body to a virus so that it can learn how to fight it off and save people from getting sick.
Vaccines are biological solutions that give a person immunity against spreadable diseases, such as the flu or coronavirus. Vaccines are used to prevent the spread of communicable, or infectious, diseases in a population. Since a virus can’t survive without a host, and vaccination prevents people from hosting the virus, the virus will eventually die out if enough people are vaccinated.
The first ever vaccine was developed in 1796 in London by Dr. Edward Jenner. The world was undergoing a massive smallpox outbreak which killed 30% of those infected. He hypothesized that exposure to cowpox, a similar disease that doesn’t affect humans, could teach the immune system to fight smallpox. He injected some material from sores on an infected cow into eight year old James Phillips. A few weeks later, he injected the same boy with smallpox, and surprisingly the boy showed no symptoms. He had successfully given James the first vaccine.
As medical technology improved, it became easier for scientists to develop new vaccines. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the increase in scientific knowledge and ability to grow viruses in labs allowed for the development of many of the vaccines we receive today, including MMR, diphtheria, and tetanus.
Vaccinations are considered the biggest public health breakthrough of the 20th century. Because of the effort to vaccinate the global population against polio, there were only 441 cases in 2 countries in 2020, compared with half a million worldwide cases in 1950. Furthermore, vaccination efforts have successfully led to the eradication of smallpox, with no cases since the 1980s. This is a remarkable achievement because the disease used to devastate populations. In Edward Jenner’s city of London, over 3000 people died of smallpox in a single year.
This success can be attributed to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global vaccination campaign, known as the Expanded Program on Immunizations (EPI) in the 1970s. Advances in medical technology, increased public support for vaccinations, and private donations drastically increased the number of people vaccinated globally. Between 1980 and 2011, the number of people vaccinated against measles increased from 18 to 84%. The global child mortality rate, or the percentage of children who die before the age of 5, has decreased by 59% since the 1990s, partially due to the push for worldwide vaccination against communicable disease.
Vaccinations continue to be a critical public health tool. Even though we have eliminated certain diseases, new ones continue to emerge. Scientists warn that with global climate change and environmental degradation, new viruses will come into contact with humans faster than ever before. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to vaccinate against communicable diseases and develop vaccines for new diseases to prevent outbreaks.
Preventing massive outbreaks of disease not only protects individuals from getting sick, it protects our healthcare system. As seen during the 1920 influenza pandemic and the more recent Coronavirus pandemic, hospitals are only equipped to handle so many patients. The easiest way to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed is to reduce the number of people getting sick.
As citizens, it is important that we stay up to date on our own vaccinations, including receiving a yearly flu vaccination. We must also advocate for increased access to vaccines worldwide. A great first step would be to support organizations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which aims to increase vaccination in low income countries. You can also contact your congressional representatives and urge them to fund WHO’s vaccination efforts.