August marks National Immunization Awareness Month, which highlights the importance of vaccination for people of all ages.
In 1796, the trajectory of our relationship with disease changed permanently when Edward Jenner invented the first vaccine. By inoculating a nine-year-old with material extracted from a cowpox sore, Jenner discovered he could help build a person’s immunity against smallpox, a devastating virus that at the time killed three out of every 10 people infected.
Less than 200 years later, on May 8, 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly declared smallpox had been completely eradicated after worldwide vaccination efforts. “The most dreadful scourge of the human species,” as Jenner termed the disease, had been beaten.
While perhaps the most famous, smallpox is not the only disease tackled by vaccines. Polio, a virus that left many patients crippled for life, was eliminated from the United States through vaccination efforts by 1995, and by 2015 just 74 cases of the disease were reported around the world. More recently, vaccines that target human papillomavirus (HPV) have helped cut cervical cancer rates. In the United States today, 16 infectious diseases are preventable as a result of childhood vaccines, resulting in an estimated $1.9 trillion in societal costs saved.
Recently, the importance of vaccines have returned to the public spotlight as communities around the world continue to grapple with the impact of COVID-19 and researchers work to develop safe and effective vaccines to prevent infection.