Modern vaccines have been around for over a century, with the idea of vaccinations going back to ancient China and India. Most credit Edward Jenner for creating the first smallpox vaccine in the early 1770’s; however, he is simply the first to do a scientific experiment and document the process. Louis Pasteur’s work would pave the way for the concept of modern vaccinations. Doctors and scientists continue to find ways to prevent diseases causing disability and death. Without vaccinations, many would continue to suffer diseases and the long-term effects related to them. By preventing these illnesses, and related disabilities and death, vaccines allow people to grow and have healthy productive lives. Especially in today’s truly global economy where extensive travel is extremely common for large portions of the world’s population due to work, education or pleasure. Although allegations of negative side effects plague the vaccination process, vaccinations continue to help today prevent illness, diseases, and death making it one of the most important events in world history.
The idea of vaccinations has been around for thousands of years. Vaccination introduces “a particular disease or illness—into a patient’s body. The idea is that if the patient is subsequently exposed to a full dose of the pathogen in the future then the vaccination will have trained their natural immune system to attack and destroy it”. (Parsons, 97) Ancient Indian texts talked about building immunity to illnesses. During the Medieval era, China found a way to expose people to smallpox scabs to lessen the likelihood they would contract smallpox or at least have a severe case of smallpox. Centuries later, English Lady Mary Montagu visited Constantinople and saw natives exposing people to smallpox to lessen the severity or existence of the disease. Returning to England, she sought help to explore this. Edward Jenner explored the idea of vaccination for smallpox through experiments with cowpox; however, he hated the unpredictability of exposing people to a disease where he could not control the severity if they got it.
Obviously, smallpox was a deadly disease in populations who continued to struggle with outbreaks, but it devastated new populations, like Native Americans, who had no prior exposure to it. There civilizations had no immunities to the disease; therefore, entire populations were annihilated during the height of European exploration. The precursor to the modern-day flu, the Spanish Influenza was horrific. “No other epidemic has claimed as many lives as the Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1918-1919 worldwide”. (Influenza Pandemics) It is estimated between 40-70 million people died from the Spanish Influenza. Sadly, an effective flu vaccine would not be developed for many years; however, health leaders have a plan in place should an outbreak like this happen again. Polio is another disease that literally crippled the population. When outbreaks occurred, many people lived with symptoms of varying strengths for the rest of their lives. This disease caused muscle and joint issues which developed into serious disabilities over the years, paralysis, and even death. In addition, yellow fever ran rampant throughout areas populations causing illness, liver disease and failure resulting in death.
The fact that these examples of diseases are virtually unheard of in the United States and around the world substantiates the point that vaccines work to keep people healthier. The last natural case of small pox occurred in 1977. The World Health Organization has declared this disease eradicated and the vaccine has been retired. On March 14, 2018 the World Health Organization also published on their polio fact sheet that rates of polio throughout the world “have decreased 99% down to 22 reported cases in 2017” and two of three strains have been eradicated throughout the world. The vaccine for yellow fever is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. These statistics speaks volume for the success of these vaccines and the quality of life for those who remain healthy rather than suffering from any of these diseases.
The future of vaccines continues to progress. Doctors still research vaccines for diseases that plague the world at large like malaria. There is a pill for prevention and treatment; however, no effective vaccine. In the last 30 years, doctors have worked to develop a human papillomavirus (HPV) which has effectively proven to help prevent certain forms of cancer. Researchers hope to find more vaccines for more cancers and other deadly diseases like AIDS which have no known cures. The effectiveness of vaccines is not shown through the number of deaths, but the decreasing frequency of disease occurrences. Statistics consistently show remarkable decreases in the occurrence of diseases with vaccines in areas where vaccines are used.
With all this supporting the use and success of vaccines, there are still groups who not only do not vaccinate, but also advocate against vaccinations. There are many reasons but two of the most common are safety concerns and political issues. There is a growing movement that claim vaccinations cause autism. Concerns caused Japan to ban the MMR vaccine in the early 1990’s. Dr. Hideo Honda conducted a study that showed autism rates are continuing to rise even though the vaccine has been banned in that country. In “Japanese Study is more evidence that MMR does not cause autism”, Andrew Cole quotes, “In the United Kingdom Evan Harris, a member of the House of Commons science and technology select committee, stated “The problem is that you cannot prove a negative. The people making a link are not using rational arguments, so the usual scientific approach will never convince them, and they will continue to lobby in the media”. The point is that when children and family health is at risk, people are emotional and look for someone to blame for illness or disability. Currently, not one single study can show direct causation between vaccination and autism; however, groups opposed to vaccines grow each year and continue to lobby Congress and the media to protect children by ceasing vaccinations.
The second objection to vaccinations is more common in third world countries where poverty is an additional complication. In some countries, the poor and uneducated are told that vaccines are the western world’s method of sterilizing or infecting the local populations. Sometimes, political and religious objects overlap as in the Muslim countries. On the History of Vaccines website, their article “Cultural Perspectives on Vaccination” states, “the local Taliban in Southern Afghanistan have called polio vaccination an American ploy to sterilize Muslim populations and an attempt to avert Allah’s will”. When those in power cast doubt on effectiveness and even question the morality of the vaccine, the population will follow those in power. However, more often it allows governments to control access to vaccines and their populations if they are dealing with illness and disease they cannot cause chaos within their country. Many organizations such as the World Health Organization try to overcome as many of these objections and obstacles as possible to move toward healthier world populations.
While no studies can officially show how many lives have been saved due to vaccinations, studies can and do show their effectiveness. Most vaccine studies are done on morbidity not mortality of the disease. The hope for vaccines is that it lowers the occurrence (morbidity) of the disease, not on how many deaths the disease cause. Vaccines do not prevent death, they hope to prevent the illness itself that causes the death. Until a disease is eradicated, there will always be a threat of death with a disease in certain cases. Vaccines hope to improve the odds that the disease will not affect large numbers of the population. Studies have shown reductions in rates of diseases for which there are vaccines. This supports the idea that vaccines work.
The invent and continued development of vaccines has improved and saved the lives of countless individuals throughout the world. The World Health Organization lists the following benefits of vaccinations: decreased resistance to antibiotics, healthcare savings, extending life expectancy, protection against bioterrorism, helping economic growth, and benefiting equity. The World Health Organization in their February 2008 Bulletin continued “We conclude that a comprehensive vaccination program is a cornerstone of good public health and will reduce inequities and poverty”. Not only have vaccines helped save lives, protect people from illness, and disability, they have also helped improve people’s quality of life and length of life. Thus making vaccinations one of the most important events in world history and continuing to help the world population through continued research and development.
- Allen, Arthur, Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver, W W Norton & Company, New York, 2007.
- Cole, Andrew, “Japanese study is more evidence that MMR does not cause autism”, BMJ Publishing Group, March 12, 2005, (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC554056)
- “Cultural Perspectives on Vaccination”, History of Vaccines by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, January 10, 2018, (www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/cultural-perspectives-vaccination)
- Goddard, Jolyon, editor, National Geographic Concise History of Science & Invention, Brown Reference Group, Washington, DC, 2010.
- Haven, Kendall, 100 Greatest Science Discoveries of All Time, Libraries Unlimited, Westport Connecticut, 2007. (53,54)
- “Influenza Pandemic”, History of Vaccines by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, January 11, 2018 (www.historyofvaccines.org/index.php/content/articles/influenza-pandemics)
- Parker, Steve editor, Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, New York, 2016.
- Parsons, Paul, Science in 100 Key Breakthroughs, Firefly Books, New York, 2011. (97-99)
- “Poliomyelitis Fact Sheet”, The World Health Organization, March 14, 2018, (www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/poliomyelitis)
- “Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide”, Bulletin of The World Health Organization, Volume 86, Number 2, February 2008, (www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/2/07-040089/en)