Before the first vaccinations, in the sense of using cowpox to inoculate people against smallpox, people have been inoculated in China and elsewhere, before being copied in the west, by using smallpox, called Variolation.
Variolation was the method of inoculation first used to immunize individuals against smallpox (Variola) with material taken from a patient or a recently variolated individual, in the hope that a mild, but protective, infection would result.
The procedure was most commonly carried out by inserting/rubbing powdered smallpox scabs or fluid from pustules into superficial scratches made in the skin.
The earliest hints of the practice of variolation for smallpox in China come during the 10th century. The Chinese also practiced the oldest documented use of variolation, which comes from Wan Quan’s (1499–1582) Douzhen Xinfa of 1549. They implemented a method of “nasal insufflation” administered by blowing powdered smallpox material, usually scabs, up the nostrils.
Various insufflation techniques have been recorded throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries within China. Two reports on the Chinese practice of inoculation were received by the Royal Society in London in 1700; one by Martin Lister who received a report by an employee of the East India Company stationed in China and another by Clopton Havers. In France, Voltaire reports that the Chinese have practiced variolation “these hundred years”.
In 1796, Edward Jenner, a doctor in Berkeley in Gloucestershire, England, tested a common theory that a person who had contracted cowpox would be immune from smallpox. To test the theory, he took cowpox vesicles from a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes with which he infected an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, and two months later he inoculated the boy with smallpox, and smallpox did not develop.
In 1798, Jenner published An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vacciniae which created widespread interest. He distinguished ‘true’ and ‘spurious’ cowpox (which did not give the desired effect) and developed an “arm-to-arm” method of propagating the vaccine from the vaccinated individual’s pustule. Early attempts at confirmation were confounded by contamination with smallpox, but despite controversy within the medical profession and religious opposition to the use of animal material, by 1801 his report was translated into six languages and over 100,000 people were vaccinated. The term vaccination was coined in 1800 by the surgeon Richard Dunning in his text Some observations on vaccination.
In 1802, the Scottish physician Helenus Scott vaccinated dozens of children in Mumbai (previous Bombay) against smallpox using Jenner’s cowpox vaccine. In the same year Scott penned a letter to the editor in the Bombay Courier, declaring that “We have it now in our power to communicate the benefits of this important discovery to every part of India, perhaps to China and the whole eastern world”. Subsequently, vaccination became firmly established in British India. A vaccination campaign was started in the new British colony of Ceylon in 1803.
By 1807 the British had vaccinated more than a million Indians and Sri Lankans against smallpox. Also in 1803 the Spanish Balmis Expedition launched the first transcontinental effort to vaccinate people against smallpox. Following a smallpox epidemic in 1816 the Kingdom of Nepal ordered smallpox vaccine and requested the English veterinarian William Moorcroft to help in launching a vaccination campaign. In the same year a law was passed in Sweden to require the vaccination of children against smallpox by the age of two. Prussia briefly introduced compulsory vaccination in 1810 and again in the 1920s, but decided against a compulsory vaccination law in 1829.
A law on compulsory smallpox vaccination was introduced in the Province of Hanover in the 1820s. In 1826, in Kragujevac, future prince Mihailo of Serbia was the first person to be vaccinated against smallpox in the principality of Serbia.
Following a smallpox epidemic in 1837 that caused 40,000 deaths, the British government initiated a concentrated vaccination policy, starting with the Vaccination Act of 1840, which provided for universal vaccination and prohibited Variolation.
The Vaccination Act 1853 introduced compulsory smallpox vaccination in England and Wales.
The law followed a severe outbreak of smallpox in 1851 and 1852. It provided that the poor law authorities would continue to dispense vaccination to all free of charge, but that records were to be kept on vaccinated children by the network of births registrars. It was accepted at the time, that voluntary vaccination had not reduced smallpox mortality, but the Vaccination Act 1853 was so badly implemented that it had little impact on the number of children vaccinated in England and Wales.
In the United States of America compulsory vaccination laws were upheld in the 1905 landmark case Jacobson v. Massachusetts by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that laws could require vaccination to protect the public from dangerous communicable diseases. However, in practice the United States had the lowest rate of vaccination among industrialized nations in the early 20th century.
Compulsory vaccination laws began to be enforced in the United States after World War II. In 1959 the World Health Organization (WHO) called for the eradication of smallpox worldwide, as smallpox was still endemic in 33 countries.
In the 1960s six to eight children died each year in the United States from vaccination-related complications. According to the WHO there were in 1966 about 100 million cases of smallpox worldwide, causing an estimated two million deaths.
In the 1970s there was such a small risk of contracting smallpox that the United States Public Health Service recommended for routine smallpox vaccination to be ended.
By 1974 the WHO smallpox vaccination program had confined smallpox to parts of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Somalia.
In 1977 the WHO recorded the last case of smallpox infection acquired outside a laboratory in Somalia. In 1980 the WHO officially declared the world free of smallpox.
In 1974 the WHO adopted the goal of universal vaccination by 1990 to protect children against six preventable infectious diseases: measles, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and tuberculosis.
In the 1980s only 20 to 40% of children in developing countries were vaccinated against these six diseases. In wealthy nations the number of measles cases had dropped dramatically after the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963. WHO figures demonstrate that in many countries a decline in measles vaccination leads to a resurgence in measles cases. Measles are so contagious that public health experts believe a vaccination rate of 100% is needed to control the disease. Despite decades of mass vaccination polio remains a threat in India, Nigeria, Somalia, Niger, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
By 2006 global health experts concluded that the eradication of polio was only possible if the supply of drinking water and sanitation facilities were improved in slums. The deployment of a combined DPT vaccine against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus in the 1950s was considered a major advancement for public health. But in the course of vaccination campaigns that spanned decades, DPT vaccines became associated with high incidences of side effects. Despite improved DPT vaccines coming onto the market in the 1990s, DPT vaccines became the focus of anti-vaccination campaigns in wealthy nations. As immunization rates decreased, outbreaks of pertussis increased in many countries.
In 2000, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization was established to strengthen routine vaccinations and introduce new and under-used vaccines in countries with a per capita GDP of under US$1000.