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Manufacturing Immunity: The History of Vaccines

January 08, 2021

Because vaccines have been part of our lives for 50 years, it can be easy to take them for granted. But they remain one of the easiest ways to keep you and your loved ones safe and healthy.

Around the 1950s, receiving vaccinations as babies or before starting school became the norm for many. Thanks to these effective immunizations, parents did not have to worry about illnesses that previously made many kids very sick and killed millions each year. These included smallpox, measles, mumps, polio, and others.

Edward Jenner, a doctor in England, made vaccine history when he created the smallpox vaccine using material from cowpox in the 1790s. Nearly 200 years later, smallpox was the first illness to see widespread immunity thanks to its vaccine.

Since then, scientists have developed dozens more vaccines to help people gain immunity from illnesses. Vaccines are typically made from a weakened or inactive form of a virus or bacteria that causes illness. That vaccine helps your body create antibodies to fight the illness.

Then, if you are exposed to a similar virus or bacteria in the future, you already have antibodies in your immune system to fight it. The vaccine has helped you create immunity.

Vaccine history and success

Jenner’s creation of the smallpox vaccine is often noted as the beginning of vaccine history. But people in China, Africa, and Turkey were using a similar approach as early as 1000. They scratched a smallpox sore from one person and put it on another person. This made many people immune to smallpox but had a higher risk of making the exposed person sick. Jenner’s vaccine using cowpox created greater immunity with far fewer people becoming sick from smallpox.

In the late 1800s and into the 1900s, dozens more vaccines were created to help people become immune to diseases like:

  • Diphtheria
  • Tetanus
  • Cholera
  • Plague
  • Polio
  • Typhoid
  • Tuberculosis
  • Pertussis
  • Influenza
  • Measles

A large polio outbreak in the 1940s and early 1950s caused 15,000 people per year to become paralyzed. Vaccines became widespread in the 1950s and 1960s, and the number of cases fell to less than 100 a year, and then to less than 10 a year in the 1970s. Over the years, people around the world have received polio vaccination, and the disease has disappeared from all but three countries.

In the 1950s and 1960s, better science and understanding of how to create vaccines that work led to vaccines for even more illnesses. During this time rubella, influenza, rotavirus, tuberculosis, and typhoid vaccines became available.

In 1966, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced an effort to end measles. Within two years, measles cases fell by more than 90%.

Preventing sickness and death

As vaccines have created immunity to more viruses and bacteria, fewer people become sick. We now have vaccines to prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases.

The vaccines that most children receive, based on CDC recommendations, prevent 42,000 deaths and 20 million cases of disease for babies born each year.

Worldwide, immunization prevents 2-3 million deaths every year from diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, influenza, and measles.

Scientists continue to create vaccines as new and mutated viruses cause illness. For example, the flu shot is different each year because the influenza virus changes. And in 2020, scientists worked together to create a vaccine for the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

Why vaccines are important

Vaccines are safe and effective, and most are inexpensive. Many common vaccines are even covered cost-free by health insurance as part of preventive care.

Being vaccinated makes a difference in the health and lives of the immunized person and everyone they are around.

Vaccines are among the most important public health achievements in the United States and the world. They save lives and are essential for fighting illnesses. And they are one of the easiest ways you can look out for your health and your loved ones.