With the anti-vaxx movement gaining traction and a series of measles outbreaks occurring all over the world, public uproar from both proponents and opponents of vaccines is taking over online discourse. Despite the beliefs of those who vehemently refuse to get their children vaccinated, however, it has been scientifically and empirically proven that vaccines have saved a countless number of lives and helped reinforce herd immunity from some of the deadliest diseases humankind has witnessed. A lookback at the historical context behind the creation of the first vaccine will hopefully provide some insight into why vaccines are required in contemporary society.
As of the day this volume of The KAIST Herald was published, yesterday marks the 223rd anniversary of the production of the first vaccine in history. A trained physician and zoologist, Edward Jenner hypothesized a correlation between immunity to smallpox and exposure to cowpox, a similar but less deadly disease, after observing that the former did not affect most milkmaids who had already been infected with the latter. To prove this, he conducted his famous experiment in which he injected smallpox a few days after injecting pus from cowpox blisters of an infected milkmaid into his gardener’s eight-year-old son. The method proved to be effective and led to the development of the first widely distributed vaccine. By the late 20th century, smallpox was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO).
At the time of the vaccine’s creation, smallpox was one of the biggest threats to livelihood. According to a letter by philosopher Voltaire, smallpox was responsible for the deaths of a fifth of the infected population. Previous attempts at developing immunity from smallpox mainly relied on variolation — inoculation with smallpox itself — and were more dangerous than their more effective counterpart; variolation still led to infection and didn’t remove the risk of transmitting the disease to others.
With more modern vaccines targeting a larger variety of diseases, contemporary society has the tools to fully eradicate illnesses that are deadly to society. However, smallpox remains the only human-affecting illness to have been eradicated. Although the anti-vaxx movement’s roots go all the way back to the early 19th century, just a few decades after Jenner’s work was publicized, its modern variation arose due to a falsified study that claimed vaccinations cause autism. Now, measles, a disease that was declared eradicated in the US in 2000, is making a comeback. Even if the aforementioned claim of causation were to be true, may Jenner’s work and its historical context serve as a reminder for why vaccination should be requisite.