The History of Vaccines in America


A sticker featuring a happy vaccination syringe and the slogan “I got my shot.” These sticker’s didn’t exist when the smallpox vaccine was invented, but are prevalent today in the age of vaccination.

Illustration by Lucinda Drake

A sticker featuring a happy vaccination syringe and the slogan “I got my shot.” These sticker’s didn’t exist when the smallpox vaccine was invented, but are prevalent today in the age of vaccination.

According to Franklin’s nurse, Kay Manley, “all the diseases that we now immunize for are deadly, and at any point in our past history could have killed numerous, numerous, hundreds of thousands of people.” This statement is more than true, as it is estimated that 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century, a disease that is now considered to be eradicated thanks to vaccines. Vaccines have been called the most significant health achievement, but the history of disease prevention goes farther back than most people think. Immunization actually began with the consumption of snake venom hundreds of years ago to protect against snake bites, a technique said to be used by Buddhist monks. This method of immunization through exposure was then expanded upon to address smallpox, a prevalent disease that killed nearly 400,000 people per year in Europe alone.

Towards the end of the 18th century, many doctors were searching for a cure to smallpox. Studies were done with scabs of smallpox victims that were crushed up and blown up the noses of patients who hadn’t been exposed to the disease yet. This method found mild success, but it wasn’t until 1796 that a doctor by the name of Edward Jenner made a very important discovery about the devastating disease. Jenner noticed that people who worked with cattle were generally immune to smallpox, and what seemed like a small coincidence soon became a large breakthrough for medicine. Jenner attributed this immunization to the farm-hands’ exposure to a disease similar to smallpox and prevalent in cattle, conveniently named cowpox. Since cowpox was a much milder and less deadly disease than smallpox, but exhibited similar symptoms to smallpox, Jenner assumed an association. In fact, Jenner was so confident about his findings that he decided to run his first experiment on a child.

The experiment consisted of infecting the child with cowpox and waiting several months before infecting the child again with smallpox. Jenner repeated this experiment on numerous other patients, and none of them contracted smallpox. This discovery led to the development of the smallpox vaccine in 1798, and by 1979, smallpox was eradicated globally. The smallpox vaccine, as well as other developments of immunization, spread to the US in 1800. It was actually George Washington who endorsed the use of vaccines among troops in 1806.

Jenner’s discovery led to rapid developments in the world of health science. By 1877, it was proposed that germs were the cause of disease. Soon thereafter, vaccines were being developed for diseases like cholera, polio, and rabies. These breakthroughs saved thousands of lives. However, with every new breakthrough in science, there are always skeptics.

Anti-vaccination movements began as soon as Jenner proposed his observations. Many believed that his use of cowpox in humans would turn patients into cows and then refused to acknowledge his breakthroughs (that are estimated to have saved 530 million lives). This resistance continued into America, as many soldiers were forced to be vaccinated for the war effort. A more specific example of the strong resistance to vaccines took place in 1877, when a group of anti vaccination protesters “firebombed” the house of Cotton Mather, who at the time was leading pro-immunization efforts in Boston.

These protests continue into the twenty-first century. Many believe that vaccines might cause autism, as a paper written by Andrew Wakefield stated in 1998. Additional studies have been conducted and found no correlation between autism and vaccines in 2009, and Andrew Wakefield’s license as a physician has been revoked. Even with these additional studies, many still fear the possibility of vaccines harming children. Additionally, to many the vaccine debate has become a matter of liberty: it’s a parent’s right to choose whether or not to vaccinate their child, and because of this, many parents decide against vaccinations for their children.

Because of these unvaccinated pockets of the population, there have been numerous outbreaks of measles across the United States beginning in 2011 (even though the disease was considered to be eradicated in the US in 2002). The danger of refusing vaccinations is seen here with measles, but if vaccine avoidance continues and spreads, there is a huge risk of bringing back even more deadly and fast-acting diseases. Additionally, refusing vaccinations threatens herd immunity, which Manley defines: “immunity for a community is when you get 97% of what is called herd immunity, which means that 97% of the population now has an immunity to that disease.” This protection through immunization is threatened by unvaccinated individuals, and impacts people who physically can’t be vaccinated. These individuals are often required to take immunosuppressants or have an autoimmune disease.

In Oregon, the law requires proof of immunization or an exemption in order for a child to attend school. According to Katelyn Nye, a student studying under Kay Manley to become a nurse, there is a designated day where students are required to be up to date on their vaccines. If they are not, they are not allowed to attend school (and for cases like the measles vaccine, a student could be out of school for up to 21 days). Additionally, if a parent or student decides to file for an exemption from the vaccination requirements, the state offers exemptions for these vaccines for religious or philosophical purposes, in the form of a non-medical exemption.  In addition to this paperwork, those filing a non-medical exemption must view educational videos. In many schools in Oregon as well as local clinics, vaccinations and flu shots are offered to their students as well as many other services to maintain public and personal health.

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