History of Vaccination

The history of vaccines did not begin with Jenner’s smallpox vaccine. It will not end with the recent vaccines against the novel coronavirus, which caused the COVID-19 pandemic. The history of vaccines begins before the first vaccine, with an immunizing procedure called “inoculation” by some and “variolation” by others. According to researchers, inoculation with materials from smallpox lesions to trigger immunity against smallpox dates back to antiquity in China. And the first written account of the procedure was written in 1549.

General Vaccine Timeline

By the late 1700s, Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids and others previously infected with cowpox were immune to smallpox. Cowpox caused lesions similar to smallpox, but the lesions were localized, and the disease was much milder and not considered deadly. Building on the world and observations of other physicians at the time, Jenner devised a series of experiments in which a person who had not previously acquired smallpox nor cowpox would be inoculated first with cowpox and later with smallpox. The gambit paid off. The subjects of these experiments showed a mild reaction to cowpox, and no reaction nor disease to smallpox inoculation. The first vaccine was born.

For almost eighty years, cowpox vaccination against smallpox remained the only vaccine in use around the world. Science and technology were not yet there to create vaccines against other disease-causing organisms, though many tried. One such person was Louis Pasteur, a French biochemist who enjoyed experimenting with microorganisms and kept detailed records of all his laboratory procedures. In Pasteur’s time, rabies was of great concern in European cities. Rabid animals from the forest would bite and infect street dogs or cattle. People who would then be bitten by the dogs or exposed through their cattle would succumb to rabies.

The Future of Immunization

Vaccines have been a part of the human fight against disease for more than 200 years. The worldwide vaccination campaign eradicated smallpox, and immunization has eliminated polio in all but a handful of countries. Childhood vaccination has substantially reduced the morbidity and mortality of infectious diseases in much of the developed world, and yearly influenza vaccination is a commonly accepted practice worldwide to reduce the impact of the seasonal influenza infection.

While we can attribute many public health successes to vaccination, the future presents continued challenges. Diseases remain for which researchers have been unable to find effective vaccines (such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and leishmaniasis) or that flourish in areas of the world where infrastructures for vaccination are poor or nonexistent, and even the currently available vaccines cannot be delivered. In other cases, the cost of vaccines is too high for poorer countries to afford, even though this is often where they are most needed. And, of course, although many current vaccines are highly effective, efforts continue to develop vaccines that are more effective than those available today. Thus, researchers continue to explore new possibilities. Higher effectiveness, lower cost, and convenient delivery are some of the main goals.


Published in GI-Mail 08/2022 (English edition).

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