The compelling history of vaccination
August 26, 2014 6:06 PM   Subscribe

A timeline of diseases and vaccines [warning: graphic photo of cutaneous diphtheria at year 1975]. Categories are: diphtheria, measles, polio, smallpox, yellow fever, and 'others'. You can select one keyword to view only that subject's timeline. From the History of Vaccines website (about page | FAQ). Similar timelines at the same site for pioneers, science and society, and there's an En Español timeline, too.

The site's blog, and Twitter account: @historyvaccines.

(This post was inspired by this photo taken in 1953 of parents waiting in line to get their children a trial polio vaccination. Source: Reader's Digest.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (22 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
"Here I would like to say a word or two upon one of the most terrible of all acute infections, the one of which we first learned the control through the work of Jenner. A great deal of literature has been distributed, casting discredit upon the value of vaccination in the prevention of small-pox. I do not see how any one who has gone through epidemics as I have, or who is familiar with the history of the subject, and who has any capacity left for clear judgment, can doubt its value. Some months ago I was twitted by the Editor of the Journal of the Anti-Vaccination League for maintaining a curious silence on the subject. I would like to issue a Mount Carmel-like challenge to any ten unvaccinated priests of Baal. I will take ten selected vaccinated persons, and help in the next severe epidemic, with ten selected unvaccinated persons (if available!). I should choose three members of Parliament, three anti-vaccination doctors, if they could be found, and four anti-vaccination propagandists. And I will make this promise—neither to jeer nor to jibe when they catch the disease, but to look after them as brothers; and for the three or four who are certain to die I will try to arrange the funerals with all the pomp and ceremony of an anti-vaccination demonstration."
- Sir William Osler, from "Man's Redemption of Man," McEwan Hall Edinburgh, Sunday July 2nd, 1910
posted by The White Hat at 6:14 PM on August 26, 2014 [24 favorites]

From the section "1802: Vaccination Endorsed":

"Initially, Waterhouse sought to retain a monopoly over smallpox vaccine in North America, refusing to provide vaccine material to other doctors without a fee or a portion of their profits."

What the hell, man?
posted by A Bad Catholic at 6:34 PM on August 26, 2014

Excellent find. Thank you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:41 PM on August 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

In 1947, at the age of seven, my mom contracted, suffered through and ultimately recovered from polio. A few years later, her cousin Ronnie was one of the .00001% (or whatever) who actually caught diphtheria from his vaccine. He also survived, barely.

Thinking about the change in public health, and especially children's health, since the advent of vaccination moves me to tears. We are just one generation removed from terrifying epidemics of communicable disease and we have forgotten so much.
posted by workerant at 6:46 PM on August 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, it's easy to forget just how terrifying polio was. Now it's just quaint memories of iron lungs and leg braces. But it's an awful disease. I hope the antivax movement isn't risking a resurgence, as has started to happen with whooping cough.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:49 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's easy to forget just how terrifying polio was.

India only just recently was certified as polio free. Which is a huge achievement.
Just five years ago, India was home to nearly half the global polio cases and considered one of the most technically difficult places to eradicate the disease, because of sanitation challenges and high-density population.
India's last case was reported in a young girl paralyzed by polio in West Bengal in January 2011.
posted by Fizz at 7:53 PM on August 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Heh, it's irony that this is the first post when I open Metafilter. There's a chance I may have to get rabies shots. I just got back from spending 4 hours in emergency after being bitten numerous times by a cat. The pain killers are just kicking in.

Long story short I was in my yard with my dogs and they ran into the trees going what I thought was a chipmunk which isn't unusual. Ends up it was a cat, which they proceeded to grab and start playing with. Big dogs, grabbing and playing with cats is not a good thing. I thought it was one of my cats that had somehow gotten out of the house. I had to get it away from the dogs and during the whole sordid thing I was bitten, hard, on my hand in several places, my arm and my stomach.

Ends up it wasn't my cat but looks exactly like it. The cat is now in my car. Don't know how bad off it is. Internal injuries are a real probability and there isn't much that can be done if that is the case. The hospital has to report to public health. That means the animal has to be quarantined for 10 days. The likelihood of it having rabies is slim but if the cat doesn't make it the doctor said I may need to get the shots just in case because we don't know anything about the cat or where it came from. We live in the country and the nearest house is 1/2 a mile away so it's not a neighborhood cat.


At least there is a vaccine and even though it's a small chance that it's carrying rabies at least I don't have to now be concerned about potentially dying from this adventure.
posted by Jalliah at 8:16 PM on August 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

Fascinating website!

While it's very impressive that India has controlled its polio epidemic, until neighbor Pakistan crushes its epidemic, India can't rest easy. (In 2014, six other nations had cases imported from the three countries where polio is still endemic. All countries are considered at risk of importation, although proximity to endemic nations increases such risk.)

And, of course, even once the disease is eradicated in humans, it will take another generation until its dreadful legacy - polio paralysis and post-polio syndrome - finally disappears. The hope is that the legacy of the polio eradication effort - the incredibly valuable public health networks built - will be maintained and applied to other ongoing health threats.
posted by gingerest at 8:21 PM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Vaccination had been one of humanity's better ideas, it's good to remember that we really do use our knowledge for good sometimes.
posted by emjaybee at 8:31 PM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think there's a strong case to be made that the eradication of smallpox is the single greatest human achievement in all of history. Smallpox was such a hellish disease, and now (barring a corresponding single greatest fuckup in history at the CDC or VECTOR), nobody is ever, ever going to get it again. What else have we done that will create so much benefit for future generations as long as the species exists, with so few drawbacks?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:47 PM on August 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

One of my high school science teachers reminisced to us about how they came to his school to give the polio vaccine to all the kids and the nurses lined them all up, biggest to smallest (like this, more or less), and started with the biggest ones, on the theory they'd be too ashamed to cry in front of the little kids and the little ones would get to see the big ones survive the shot.

It more or less worked as hoped with the older ones, but then you had a bunch of freaked-out five-year-olds who'd just watched 200 bigger kids get needles stuck in them and had plenty of time to think about it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:47 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think we are going to see a resugence of some of these diseases. The whooping cough epidemic was at least partially caused by a mutation in the virus and now we are finding that a strain of polio has mutated as well.

More about that here
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:20 PM on August 26, 2014

Whooping cough is making its way around central Florida according to my friends out there I keep up with on the book of faces. I wonder how much sicker thier kids would be if they were unvaxxed.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 2:27 AM on August 27, 2014

I had whooping cough as a kid, before the vaccine was available in Italy. I don't remember much, I was a toddler, but it was hell on my mother who had to listen to me cough my heart out for more than 6 months, never mind the actual physical danger from the disease. I used to catch her crying over it whenever I got a chest cold, even as a young adult.

I have a small daughter now, she's four and a half months old, and the anti-vaxx crowd inspires such hatred in me that I can hardly stand it. The sheer gall of their willful defiance of safety, science, and common sense makes me seethe. They are not only endangering their children, but mine as well, along with the rest of society. We had made such headway in the containment of these awful diseases and now this, all because of a bunch of selfish assholes living in their own echo chamber?
posted by lydhre at 6:35 AM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

When my kids were little it was just at the time that the bogus study came out about autism so I was anti-vax. We did stick them for tetanus, pertussis and mumps but my doc actually drove over the border to the USA to get us a vaccine that had no mercury in it.

Since then however, the evidence has refuted that claim and I have become pro-vax. So I just wanted to weigh in here that there are batshit insane people in the anti-vaccination movement, but there are also alot of us that like to work with actual science and evidence in making decisions about their kids.

Yay to science saving lives.
posted by salishsea at 8:04 AM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a great timeline. I really like how it also addresses variolation - the predecessor to vaccination - and it's use for hundreds of years by non-European cultures. Also, shout-out to Lady Montagu, a pioneer for women in science and medicine!

While I understand the source limits the scope, I do wish that there was a greater discussion of the history of veterinary vaccines. Veterinary vaccinology is a fascinating field, and often new technologies and approaches were first developed for veterinary vaccines. Some examples:
  • The first vaccine for a retrovirus - Feline Leukemia Virus
  • The first therapeutic vaccine for cancer - Canine Melanoma
  • The first recombinant vaccine - some livestock product in the 80s
  • The first vaccine produced in plant cells - New Castle Disease in chickens
  • The first live viral vectored vaccine - an oral rabies vaccine for wildlife (coyotes, racoons, ect.) They drop this out of planes!
  • The first DNA vaccine - West Nile in horses.
Veterinary vaccines are cool. (Disclaimer: I work in the veterinary vaccine field, so I am a bit biased.)
posted by gagoumot at 8:37 AM on August 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Exceptionally interesting timeline. I will say that studying it makes me feel more sympathetic towards anti-vaccers that I had expected: there are many accounts of accidents and miscalculations with various vaccines, leading to deaths (Tuberculosis: Lubeck Disaster; the Dallas Disaster etc). There was lots there I knew nothing about: that variolation had a 2% death rate for instance, and begun to be used in the West nearly 100 years before Jenner. That indeed, experimental treatments might be first practiced on the vulnerable (Salk's first vaccine trials on resident children in institutions for the disabled and retarded.)

My uncle had smallpox as a young man and nearly died and took a long time to recover. He had paralysis in one leg and walked with a stick afterwards. It kept him out of education because he was ill for so long. He had pockmarks - not ugly, but textural, like acne scars. He was such a charismatic man that it was all part of his glamour.

I was interested to find out more about the eradication of small pox because I remember the world-wide effort happened when I was in school. The whole school lined up, teachers included, and we were vaccinated on the forearm with a kind of gun thing that left a very neat scar. Previously to get vaccinated you'd gone to the office and had a guy sterilise a needle in a little kerosene flame and slash away at a spot on your bicep with it, making lots of little cuts and digging the matter into your arm by hand.

It was American teams doing the vaccination-by-gun and we knew they covered the whole country, all schools, towns, villages in the interior etc. Everybody, we understood, got vaccinated. I've not ever read anything explicitly about it since but here is a report about eradicating smallpox at that time, the 10 years between 1967-77. It's interesting because they were not even sure it was possible, or even desirable: there was debate about whether vertical health initiatives take away from horizontal (local, responsive) health services. What made it possible was the cheapness of the vaccine plus the ability to freeze-dry it, so it could be delivered in the tropics in remote, undeveloped places. A massive thing, and not much generally known about the details.

Sorry for sloppy comment, about to leave house
posted by glasseyes at 10:02 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

that variolation had a 2% death rate

Imagine that choice: willingly infect yourself RIGHT NOW in a way that will make you sick and may kill you, and which kills one in twenty people - and has probably already killed multiple people you knew. Two weeks from now you could be dead, by your own hand.

Or don't take the risk, knowing that you are pretty much certain to get smallpox at some point in your life, and you will then have a one-in-three chance of dying at that future time.

I'm so very glad I live in the future.
posted by anonymisc at 2:24 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

we were vaccinated on the forearm with a kind of gun thing that left a very neat scar

Ped-O-Jet - the invention that was able to make mass vaccination fast and cheap, raising the possibility of global eradication. It was ultimately superseded, but it opened the door to one of the greatest achievements of humanity.
posted by anonymisc at 2:28 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Imagine that choice: willingly infect yourself RIGHT NOW in a way that will make you sick and may kill you, and which kills one in twenty people - and has probably already killed multiple people you knew. Two weeks from now you could be dead, by your own hand. Or don't take the risk, knowing that you are pretty much certain to get smallpox at some point in your life, and you will then have a one-in-three chance of dying at that future time."
“In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”
-Autobiography of Ben Franklin
Adding insult to injury, in a way familiar to modern vaccine advocates, religious anti-inoculationists attempted to use young Franky's death to claim that he had been infected with smallpox from an inoculation and died from the inoculation, not from, un-inoculated, catching the disease.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:13 PM on August 27, 2014

Can't... help... myself...

2% is one in fifty not one in twenty.
posted by Justinian at 3:51 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

« Older "The Witness"   |   Because the VMAs were the night BEFORE and he... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments