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How vaccines changed the world: the history of vaccinations from the XNUMXth century to the present day

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced humanity to remember how dangerous and destructive outbreaks of infectious diseases can be and why, in such situations, vaccines become the only hope for a return to normal life. Edition with the BBC told how at different times they fought diseases and how vaccines were invented.

Photo: Shutterstock

Unfortunately, the coronavirus is not the first enemy that humanity has faced and, the salvation from which must be a vaccine. Hundreds of millions of people in the world survived only thanks to the fact that scientists managed to create a vaccine. Of course, if they lived where there was access to medical care.


The smallpox vaccine is perhaps the biggest success story in this area.

In the 300th century alone, this disease killed more than XNUMX million people. The number of victims in earlier eras is difficult to count.

About 30% of those infected with smallpox died, often in agony, because their whole body was covered with purulent abscesses. The rest were blind or remained for life with terrible scars on their skin.

For centuries, people have been desperately looking for a cure for smallpox - and eventually they created the first vaccine.

The idea that an artificially induced mild form of the disease can create immunity in humans was probably born in China. According to sources, for about 1000 years, people there inhaled powder from finely crushed scabs of smallpox patients through their nose or inserted pieces of cotton wool soaked in smallpox pus into their ears.

In Africa, a thread soaked in pus was pulled through the skin with a needle.

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In XNUMXth-century Britain, smallpox vaccinations among the population were hotly promoted by the famous aristocrat and intellectual Lady Mary Montague, who herself had smallpox in her youth and got acquainted with the relevant practices in Turkey, where her husband served as an ambassador.

The method did not differ in reliability. As a result, about one in thirty patients fell ill with severe smallpox and died.

When English farmers noticed that vaccinia was infectious to humans, but not fatal to humans, physician Edward Jenner created a reliable and safe vaccine based on vaccinia.

On May 14, 1796, Jenner instilled her with her eight-year-old farm son, James Phipps, who later lived to old age, and two years later published the famous pamphlet "Investigation of the Causes and Effects of Cowpox" - at his own expense, since the Royal Scientific Society regarded Jenner's method with distrust.

Doubts disappeared when the British army and navy were vaccinated against smallpox by order, and everything remained in order, even without the side effects.

Almost a hundred years later, Louis Pasteur, out of respect for Jenner, suggested calling all preparations based on the principle of creating artificial immunity vaccines: from the French word vache - "cow".

But in poor countries, smallpox continued to exist for over 150 years. It was finally defeated with the help of mass vaccination, which was organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1967.

It is believed that in order to develop herd immunity, 80% of the population must be vaccinated, but it was impossible to vaccinate several billion people. Then they decided to use the tactics of spot immunization - when the focus of the disease was identified, all residents of neighboring villages were vaccinated. Thus, it was possible to eradicate smallpox in a region with a population of 12 million people, having made only 750 thousand vaccinations.

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Currently, live smallpox viruses remain in only two places on Earth: laboratories of the highest level of protection in Russia and the United States.


This disease killed far fewer people than smallpox, but it was much more violent to the survivors.

Poliomyelitis is mainly acquired during childhood. The virus enters the mouth, then enters the bloodstream, and then affects the nervous system. Very often, the disease causes incurable paralysis. Most of it affects the legs, but one in ten patients dies of suffocation as a result of lung paralysis.

The only hope for such patients was artificial ventilation of the lungs inside special chambers created in the 1920s, called the "Iron Lungs". In these metal cocoons, people spent weeks, and sometimes the rest of their lives.

Since poliomyelitis has no external signs, it was possible to determine its viral nature only in 1905. This was done by the Swedish doctor Ivar Vikman.

By that time, improvements in drinking water quality in big cities had reduced both the total number of polio cases and the percentage of people who were immune to it. Outbreaks have become more visible.

Also at the time, scientists and medical professionals thought that polio was a problem in developed countries. Later it turned out that this was not the case.

In 1952, American physician Jonas Salk created a polio vaccine. In 1961, his colleague Albert Seibin came up with an improved version that could be swallowed rather than given by injection. The incidence in the US and Europe has declined sharply.

One of the worst mistakes in vaccination history has been linked to polio vaccination. In 1955, the American firm Cutter Laboratories mistakenly released more than one hundred thousand doses of the drug containing the live polio virus. Ten children died and 160 were paralyzed for life.

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In 1988, WHO announced a program to eradicate poliomyelitis worldwide. In 1994, the disease was defeated in the United States, in 2000 in China, Japan and South Korea. And in 2002 Europe announced that it had defeated poliomyelitis, and in 2014 the countries of Southeast Asia joined all.

According to expert estimates, thanks to the polio vaccine, one and a half million people have survived in the world and 18 million can walk.

Now poliomyelitis makes itself felt only in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, the number of cases is estimated at dozens per year.


Measles vaccination is an example of both success and failure.

The outbreak of Ebola in Africa, which attracted the attention of the whole world, killed about 20 thousand people, while measles at the same time quietly killed 207,5 thousand, despite the fact that the vaccine against it has existed since 1963.

The measles virus is extremely contagious and spreads through droplets of saliva through coughing and sneezing or through direct contact. Once in the body, measles causes a high fever and rash, in severe cases that threaten the patient's life - diarrhea, pneumonia and inflammation of the meninges.

Before the vaccine was invented, measles killed an average of 2,6 million a year. But it has not yet been possible to completely overcome the disease, and the reason for this is its high infectivity. With such indicators, it is necessary that 95% of the world's population receive the vaccine.

In the US and Europe, the incidence of measles in recent years has begun to rise again due to the views of "anti-vaccine", widely spread through social media.

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British medic Andrew Wakefield gave them a push. In 1998, he published a controversial article that a combination vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella allegedly causes autism in children. Although these articles were later refuted, and Wakefield himself was stripped of his medical license for scientific bad faith, he managed to sow doubts in people.

Whereas in developed countries, measles cases die relatively rarely, in Africa the situation is worse. A measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019 killed more than XNUMX people, mostly children.

The main problem in developing countries is not prejudice, but a lack of vaccine and a lack of medical infrastructure, especially in remote locations. WHO has asked UN Member States for $ 255 million in additional funding for measles vaccination in developing countries.


Malaria, also known as swamp fever, has been around for a very long time. Scientists believe that people have been sick with it since prehistoric times.

And today about half of humanity is at risk of contracting malaria, and 400 thousand people die from it every year. Moreover, half of the deaths occur in Africa.

The disease is caused by a single-celled parasitic bacterium, Plasmodium malaria, which enters the bloodstream when an anopheles mosquito bites them.

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The main ways to combat malaria are draining marshes, where mosquitoes, mosquito nets and drugs that suppress disease at an early stage are raised - and there is evidence that Plasmodium has begun to acquire resistance to them.

A vaccine against malaria has not yet been created. Although scientists have been working on it for 32 years and have spent a total of $ 700 million.

The only prototype is being tested in Ghana, Malawi and Kenya, due for completion in 2023. So far, according to available data, it protects against malaria on average 40% of cases and for a period of no more than four years - very weak compared to vaccines for other diseases. In this case, it is necessary to do not one or two, but as many as four vaccinations.

Experts express restrained optimism, but warn that the vaccine is unlikely to become a panacea for malaria.

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