• Jack Schaefer

History of vaccines and how they work

Recently, vaccines have been met with skepticism regarding their effectiveness and potential for harm to those who receive them. The advent of the internet means that information can be spread that is not necessarily truthful. It becomes difficult for people to receive trustworthy information from sources that are unbiased and do not have an agenda other than improving the health of the public. When public health is at stake, it is essential that correct information is available.

Vaccines can be a controversial topic, especially with the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccines, so it is even more important to inform communities about the history of vaccines, how they work, and the benefits these medical miracles have for health of individuals and the greater public.

Early forms of vaccination originated from India and China. Early practices date back to 200 B.C.E., according to historyofvaccines.org, when ground-up scabs from children sick with smallpox would be blown up the nostrils of healthy children. Another method included scratching the skin of the sick individual and then scratching the skin of a non-infected individual.

Fast forward to 1879, when Louis Pasteur created the first laboratory vaccine for chicken cholera. Pasteur created this vaccine using a weakened version of the bacterium on chickens and found that the chickens’ ability to fight the disease was greatly increased and, in most cases, the chickens did not become ill. This is essentially what modern-day vaccines take advantage of.

Classes of modern-day vaccines include live or attenuated vaccines, inactivated vaccines, and toxoid vaccines.

Live or attenuated vaccines are used to fight viruses and bacteria. This type of vaccine works in similar ways to Pasteur’s first design. By using a live or weakened form of the bacteria/virus, the body is able to quickly and effectively fight the disease and create the necessary immune cells to fight it again if exposed. Think of it as sampling a food before you decide whether or not you want to order the whole thing.

Inactivated vaccines work against viruses and bacteria but do so in a different fashion. Inactive means that the virus or bacterium is not alive or able to cause disease by replicating. This allows the cell to break down and essentially study the disease-causing agent so that it can fight it if exposed again, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Toxoid vaccines work by introducing an agent that is toxic to that specific type of bacteria. This may sound like being injected with toxic chemicals but, in fact, the toxoid is at such a low level — because bacterium is so small, they do not require much — that it will not cause harm. The DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine is an example of a toxoid vaccination.

People have become concerned with long term effects of vaccines and rightly so. We want to know what goes into our bodies and when it comes to medical procedures, it becomes essential that people know all the risks and benefits.

The body’s immune system is extremely effective at fighting disease and preventing it in the future. Vaccines take advantage of the body’s immune system by training it to defeat diseases before they are exposed fully.

Since vaccines are either inactivated or weakened, the body easily learns to fight off and produce the memory cells needed to fight it in the future. This also means that vaccines are only circulating in the body for a short amount of time and after that the body’s own cells are doing the work, making long-term side effects extremely rare because the vaccine is not in your body long-term.

Like any medication, vaccines may cause side effects, but the effects of the diseases that vaccines prevent are often much more serious and even deadly.

By understanding the history and function of vaccines, people become empowered and educated to make decisions about their health in the future. Being an informed citizen can only serve to benefit individuals and the community-at-large.


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