A bit of history and science regarding vaccines

The inspiration for this post¬†did not come from reading yet another anti-vaxxer blog. In fact, I don’t really want to get into that issue too much because little will seem to convince a fixed-minded community. No, instead, I’m writing this because I spent a miserable half of last week feeling as if I had the flu, following my jab to protect me against Q-fever.

But that did serve to pique my interest in researching and writing a bit more about vaccines.


A little history

Interestingly, vaccines didn’t really start with Edward Jenner in 1790. In fact, the process of infecting people with a tiny amount of a disease began in China as early as 1000 AD¬†(and possibly in areas of Africa and Turkey as well), to confer immunity to smallpox (by smearing cowpox onto an open cut) and also snake venoms. In both of these cases, the body’s immune system attacked a similar or scaled-down version of the threat which built an immune response that could be quickly activated if the patient was ever infected with the more dangerous version.

However, in 1796, Edward Jenner enters the story as the founder of vaccines in Europe and formalised his work into a medical text. Like the Chinese before him, he noted that individuals who had had cowpox did not contract smallpox. He experimented with his theory and infected a boy with cowpox and then exposed him to smallpox later to demonstrate that the boy was now immune. Given smallpox was so deadly (claiming a 30-40% mortality rate), the vaccine rapidly spread throughout Europe and the Americas. By 1979, vaccination had become so widespread that smallpox was declared eradicated.

However, the development of the next vaccine was a little behind the first. Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine wasn’t discovered until 1885, though it was quickly followed by both vaccinations and antitoxins (antibodies that neutralised specific biological toxins) for diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis by the 1930s.

Another important development was the discovery of different methods to inactivate the vaccine. This meant that people no longer had to be injected with live bacteria, thus reducing the risk of actually getting the disease from the vaccine.


Today, vaccines have been further developed and exist in some form or other to protect against many diseases. Many of these are also lab-created in cell lines and/or genetically engineered so as to make the vaccines as harmless while effective as possible. While genetic engineering is great for the vaccines, it is also a dangerous tool in editing viral diseases themselves, and in the case of bioterrorism relying on a gene-edited virus, today’s medical scientists will no doubt have to respond quickly if there is any hope of developing vaccines to cope with such threats.

However, as the process of vaccination involves provoking an immune reaction, many people have minor reactions, such as redness and soreness around the vaccine site and fever symptoms as the body fights the perceived threat. A little trial though, compared to contracting the disease itself.

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