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A brief history of vaccines from smallpox to COVID-19

Posted at 2:59 PM, May 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-07 19:48:53-04

The following is a brief history of vaccines starting with the first known vaccine (smallpox) to the vaccines that are being used now for COVID-19.

1796 — Smallpox vaccine. Edward Jenner used cowpox material to create immunity to smallpox. It was the first vaccine to be developed against a contagious disease. Mortality during outbreaks was as high as 35% before the vaccine. Smallpox is estimated to have killed 300 to 500 million people before 1900. From 1958 to 1977, the World Health Organization conducted a global vaccination campaign that eradicated smallpox. Although the vaccine is no longer given to the public, the vaccine is kept on hand to guard against bioterrorism and biological warfare.

1885 — Rabies vaccine. Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux developed the vaccine. 9-year-old Joseph Meister was the first to receive it after been mauled by a rabid dog. The rabies vaccine is considered very expensive and three doses can cost over $1,000 in the U.S.

1926 — Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. Developed by pediatrician Leila Denmark. Controversial during the 1970s and 80s because many believed the vaccine could cause permanent brain injury in rare cases. The rate of risk was very low though and doctors recommended it because of the overwhelming health benefit. Pertussis would kill thousands of Americans each year before the vaccine was introduced.

1926 — Diphtheria vaccine. Recommended by World Health Organization since 1974. Usage of the vaccine resulted in more than a 90% decrease in the number of cases globally between 1980 and 2000. Considered very safe.

1938 — Tetanus vaccine. Deaths from tetanus in newborns decreased from 787,000 in 1988 to 58,000 in 2010 and 34,000 in 2015. Before the vaccine, there were about 550 cases per year in the U.S. There are about 30 cases per year now.

** Vaccines for pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus combined in 1948 and became the DTP vaccine

1940s — Influenza vaccine. Also known as flu shots. New versions are developed twice a year. WHO and CDC recommend yearly vaccination for nearly all people over the age of six months. The Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 killed anywhere between 20 and 50 million people, which made it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The death rate is high among infants who catch influenza. During the 2017-18 flu season the CDC believes 85% of the children who died most likely had not been vaccinated. There are usually millions of infections and thousands of death each year during flu season. In the 2019-2020 flu season, between 24,000 and 62,000 people lost their lives because of the flu.

1950 — Polio vaccine. The first successful demonstration of a polio vaccine was by Hilary Koprowski. Another vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk in 1955. Albin Sabin also developed a vaccine in 1961. During the early 1950s, there were about 25,00 cases per year in the U.S. with around 3,000 deaths. The development of two vaccines led to the first modern mass inoculations. However, in April 1955, the surgeon general began receiving reports of patients who contracted paralytic polio about a week after being vaccinated with the Salk polio vaccine. An investigation unveiled that the vaccine caused 40,000 cases of polio and killed 10 people. This led to a drop in public confidence in the polio vaccine. The WHO led a global effort to eradicate polio in 1988 and by 1994, polio was eliminated in the Americas. By 2000, it had been eliminated in 36 Western Pacific countries, including China and Australia. Europe was declared polio-free in 2002. There were only 3 countries as of 2017 with polio cases — Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Those cases are a result of the people in those countries refusing to be vaccinated.

1963 — Measles vaccine. The first version was developed in 1963. The second version, which became the one used in the U.S., was created in 1968. Before the vaccine, there were three to four million cases per year with hundreds of deaths. By the 1980s, there were only a few thousand per year. An outbreak in 1990 led to a renewed push for vaccination. No more than 220 cases were reported between 1997 and 2013. Within the first 20 years, the vaccine is estimated to have prevented 52 million cases, 17,400 cases of intellectual disability, and 5.200 deaths.

1967 — Mumps vaccine. Initially not considered a serious public health issue. Men began suffering from debilitating testicular inflammation, which became an issue during wartime. During World War II, the U.S. targeted mumps for scientific research.

1969 — Rubella vaccine. Epidemic in Europe between 1962 and 1963 and the United States between 1964 and 1965. Countries with high rates of immunizations no longer see cases of rubella. However, the vaccination level must remain at 80% to keep rubella at bay. As of 2009, more than 130 countries have included it in their routine vaccinations.

** The measles, mumps and rubella vaccines were combined into the MMR vaccine by Dr. Maurice Hilleman in 1971

1977 — Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine, also known as Hib vaccine. In countries that include it as a routine vaccine, rates of severe infections have decreased more than 90%. Recommended by both the WHO and the CDC. Two or three doses should be given before six months of age. As of 2013, 184 countries include it in their routine vaccinations.

1980s — Pneumococcal vaccine. In the year 2000, doctors recommended all children ages 2-23 months and at-risk children 24-59 months receive the vaccine. In February 2010, another vaccine was introduced that provided even more protection from various types of pneumococcal. The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine gives at least 85% protection to those under age 55 for five years or longer.

1981 — Hepatitis B vaccine. Research began in 1963 by American physician/geneticist Baruch Blumberg. In 1976, Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the hepatitis B vaccine. However, the first field trials didn’t happen until the late 1970s. The first dose is recommended within 24 hours of birth with either two or three more doses given after that. The vaccine is recommended for anyone with poor immune functions and healthcare workers. In healthy people, routine immunizations result in more than 95% of people being protected.

1981 — Chickenpox vaccine. World Health Organization recommends countries keep more than 80% of the population vaccinated to prevent outbreaks. As of 2017, 33 countries recommended all non-medically exempt children receive the vaccine. Before the introduction of the vaccine in the U.S. in 1995, there were around four million cases per year, mostly children. Between 11,000 and 13,000 were hospitalized and 100 to 150 children died each year as a result. 10 years after it was introduced, the CDC reported a 90% drop in chickenpox cases.

2000 — Hepatitis A vaccine. Effective in around 95% of cases and lasts for 15 years to life. Two doses recommended before age 2. WHO recommends universal vaccination in areas where the disease is moderately common.

2006 — Rotavirus vaccine. It is on the WHO's List of Essential Medicines. A 2009 review estimated the vaccine would prevent about 45% of deaths due to rotavirus gastroenteritis, or about 228,000 deaths annually worldwide. More than 100 countries offer the vaccine. The vaccine was first developed in 1998. However, it was withdrawn from the market in 1999 after it was discovered it contributed to the risk of bowel obstruction in one out of every 12,000 vaccinated infants.

2006 — Human papillomavirus vaccine or HPV. Recommended by the WHO as part of routine vaccinations in all countries. Requires two to three doses depending on the person’s age and immune status. As of 2017, 71 countries include it in routine vaccinations, at least for girls.

2021 -- COVID-19 vaccine. Three vaccines have been developed in response to a new, deadly version of the coronavirus (SARS‑CoV‑2). Development began in 2020 in response to the global pandemic. There are currently three vaccines that are being administered — Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson. As of April 2021, there are 14 vaccines that have been authorized by at least one national regulatory authority for public use. As of May 1, more than 1.15 billion doses have been administered worldwide. In just over a year, there have been 156,326,916 cases diagnosed with 3,260,983 deaths.