A Little History on Vaccines

Edward Jenner is credited as the father of vaccination, as the first physician to vaccinate a young boy in the UK against smallpox in the 18th century. It is thought that immunization actually began even earlier than this in China in the 17th century. Vaccination is one of the greatest success stories of our public health system, eradicating smallpox and wild polio virus in the US. 

Some of the first vaccines babies get include diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus as one combined vaccine (DTaP) – and these are some of the first vaccines created later as a combination in 1948. 

The next vaccine added was the polio vaccine in the late 1950s after a trying epidemic in 1955 where the US had thousands of cases of polio that summer, overwhelming hospitals. Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals were over capacity, non-emergent surgeries were delayed and the emergency room was overrun with sick children. Some children needed a machine called the iron lung, just to breath, their shortness of breath terrifying them. When Jonas Salk’s, and Albert Sabin’s vaccines were approved for use, many parents clamored to vaccinate their children despite the newness of the vaccines. Overtime polio was eliminated in the US, the last case of wild polio originating in the US was in 1979.

The measles vaccine was developed in 1963, followed by mumps (1967), and rubella (1969) and the three were combined into MMR in 1971 by Dr Maurice Hilleman. A fraudulent paper published in 1998 in the UK claimed 12 children acquired autism soon after the MMR vaccine. The paper was retracted in 2010, the research declared fraudulent, and the researcher barred from practicing medicine in the UK. Many studies have disproven this theory; however, the damage was evident in vaccination rates. Before the paper 92% of children in the UK were vaccinated for MMR, and after the rate dropped below 80%. Cases of measles went from 56 at the time of publication to 1348 in 2008 with two confirmed deaths.

Routine vaccines for infants include hepatitis B, DTaP, Haemophilus influenza B, pneumococcal vaccine and rotavirus which are given as a series by 18 months of age and babies get their first doses of MMR, varicella and hepatitis A vaccine usually by this time as well. Children will get another DTaP, pertussis, polio, MMR and varicella vaccine before they start kindergarten, and Tdap (Tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis) and meningococcal vaccine when they start middle school. The human papillomavirus vaccine is recommended for all children around the ages of 11 or 12, as well as yearly influenza vaccines, but neither of these are generally required for public school attendance. 

Although just a small glimpse into our vaccine history, it continues to be an imperative measure for disease prevention. Just like most aspects of health care, there is always a risk vs benefit ratio to consider, though benefits of immunization far outweigh the risks. However, no two people are the same, and no vaccine is 100% safe or effective for every person and it is important to be informed and always make decisions about your child’s health with their health care provider.