There’s still a lot of hesitancy around vaccines, even though they’re FDA-approved and contain safe and tested ingredients. And importantly, vaccines have been around for a long time! When were vaccines invented, and what has their journey looked like since? Let’s explore.
When Were Vaccines Invented? A Brief Timeline
Vaccines’ journey starts all the way back in the 1700s. In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner successfully came up with the first vaccine. By collecting matter from a cowpox sore from the hand of a milkmaid, he was able to inoculate a child named James Phipps. Phipps experienced a slight reaction but made a full recovery.
But Dr. Jenner didn’t stop there. He wanted to see if the inoculation would provide continued protection to little James. So, a couple of months later, he inoculated James once again, but this time, with matter from a smallpox sore from another individual. Phipps remained healthy and officially became the first person to receive the vaccine against smallpox (although the term “vaccine” hadn’t been used yet).
Fast forward to 1872. Louis Pasteur — a name well-known in the history of vaccines — created the first vaccine in a lab, which addressed fowl cholera in chickens. In 1885, he also prevented rabies through post-exposure vaccination. He administered more than 10 injections to a patient, each one using a stronger dose of the rabies virus.
The Spanish Flu (1918-1919) was pivotal in the development of vaccines because of the tens of millions of people it killed. The flu shot was first tested on the US military and then licensed for wider use in 1945.
Vaccines started to pick up steam. The world met the yellow fever vaccine around 1937, the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine in 1939, and the polio vaccine in the mid-1950s.
Developing Smarter Vaccines
It isn’t just the creation of new vaccines that warrants our attention. It’s the increasing sophistication of existing vaccines. For instance, doctors, researchers, and scientists noticed that the flu shot didn’t work year after year. This is because, as we now know, viruses mutate. So, vaccine development also includes monitoring the different strains of diseases that pop up and iterating on vaccines to better fight them.
Aside from the flu shot, this also became an issue with the COVID-19 vaccine. The virus appeared as numerous strains in a short period of time.
An Even Longer History
While the invention of vaccines may have been more deliberate in the 1700s, their history technically goes even further back. For instance, in 430 BC, smallpox survivors would nurse those infected to encourage deliberate infection. We also know that in 17th-century China, Buddhist monks drank snake venom to protect themselves from snake bites.
While we might not know as much about these time periods, it’s fair to say that they influenced what we now know as vaccination. Vaccines work by introducing to your body a weakened or inactivated version of a virus. This triggers an immune response, essentially teaching your body how to fight that virus, should you become infected later on.
Why are Some People Still Afraid of Vaccines?
Vaccination has a long and rich history, and yet we still have a vocal anti-vax community. There are several reasons why. One main source of vaccine hesitancy is a theory that vaccines cause autism. This was a completely misguided conclusion that has been debunked and discredited without a shadow of a doubt.
Secondly, some people believe that natural immunity is enough. Natural immunity is what you acquire after getting sick. So, some of these same people advocate that getting sick is good for the greater community. However, not only is it unethical to allow people to get sick when there’s a way to prevent illness (vaccines), but every person’s natural immunity is different, and re-infection rates can be high. Furthermore, some people can’t receive certain vaccines due to age or health conditions — like babies, pregnant women, and individuals who are immunocompromised.
Third, some people argue that vaccines aren’t safe because of the ingredients they contain. However, all vaccines are stringently tested before we’re allowed to get them. This was even the case with the COVID-19 vaccines. We need to remember that COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus. While this specific illness was new, coronaviruses were not, and research into those vaccines had been happening for years.
It’s understandable that you might be hesitant to let your healthcare provider inject you with a mysterious liquid. But vaccines are responsible for saving millions of lives — preventing two to three million deaths per year, more specifically.
The Bottom Line
So, when were vaccines invented? It depends on how you look at it. While the concept was alive as soon as 430 BC, Dr. Edward Jenner made his landmark discovery in 1796. And science isn’t slowing down. Researchers continue to find incredible ways to protect us from illness.
While vaccines can be mysterious and confusing, the science doesn’t lie. They are, hands down, the safest and most effective way to protect us from disease. You should get your vaccines, and so should our children. Natural immunity isn’t enough, and as of now, and science hasn’t confirmed that alternative medicine is enough, either. If you’re ever concerned about getting a vaccine, speak with your healthcare provider so that you can better understand how they work.
If we all do our part, we can better protect ourselves and each other from potentially fatal illnesses.
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