Although vaccination has been a hot topic in recent news, the study of vaccination goes back to around 1,000 years ago. Early records of smallpox immunization, called variolation, can be dated back to 1000 CE in China.
Variolation was a practice that involved taking material (usually part of a scab) from a patient that was infected with smallpox, and exposing a healthy individual to this material. The doctor would often insert the infected material underneath the healthy person’s skin to achieve proper exposure. The hope was that the healthy person would get sick, their immune system would successfully fight the virus, and they would then be immune to the disease once they recovered. Not surprisingly, some patients died from intentional infection of smallpox, but the ones that did survive were indeed immune to future infections.
Luckily, we have since discovered a less risky method of immunization, but the general concept is similar. The body is exposed to the germs of a virus to elicit an immune response, which is a fight from the immune system to attack the organisms, kill them, and protect the body from being infected. If the body is exposed later on to the same virus in its active form, the immune system recognizes it and knows how to fight it off. But instead of using full-force, potent forms of the virus, we now use killed or weakened germs from a virus to provoke an immune response.
Physicians use attenuated (weakened or altered) forms of the virus because they signal the immune system to learn how to fight the disease without hurting the body. The ‘germs’ they use in the vaccination are samples of microbes or proteins that make up the virus.
Through all of the research and discoveries surrounding vaccines, we’ve been able to prevent a long list of diseases, such as cervical cancer, measles, hepatitis B, whooping cough, pneumonia, mumps, and polio.
Recent outbreaks of measles have occurred in the US and Europe in insular communities where groups of people resist vaccination. The CDC confirms 880 cases of measles occurring across the US this year, the greatest number of cases reported since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000.
Historically, the link between outbreaks of diseases and a concentrated lack of vaccinations holds true. Both Britain and Japan developed anti-vaccination trends in the 1970s, mostly caused by skepticism about the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine. The World Health Organization reports that 100,000 children were infected with whooping cough in Britain and 38 died. In Japan, the number of infected individuals went from 393 cases to 13,000 cases, and the number of deaths went from 0 to 41.
With such a long history, vaccines continue to shape the knowledge we have about our bodies, immune systems, and how easily viruses and bacteria can affect our health.