Life saving, miraculous, and...sometimes weird. Vaccines aren’t just an amazing public health victory, they’re interesting, too. Here are 10 fascinating, mind-boggling, and just plain crazy fun facts about immunizations:
1. Scientists knew next to nothing about viruses when the smallpox vaccine was developed
Though scientists didn’t understand what the smallpox virus was, it was widely believed that cowpox could be used to immunize against it. British scientist Edward Jenner’s research confirmed this and allowed him to develop the first smallpox vaccine in 1796 — an entire century before viruses were first discovered.
2. Vaccines perform a jedi mind trick on your body
Vaccines activate antibodies that fight off the disease at hand, without actually giving you the disease. In layman’s terms, they trick us into fighting a disease we don’t have, so that our body is prepared to fight it off if we are exposed it in the future.
3. Ancient civilizations in Asia inoculated people 1,000 years ago
India and China are believed to be the first civilations to inoculate their children against smallpox using a process called variolation. The methodology would make people squirm today—they made a small incision into a person's arm and rubbed infected material (ground scabs or pus) into the wound, or snorted ground up scabs taken from a person with smallpox.
4. Early vaccine advocates got, umm, rather creative with their distribution methods
In the late 18th century, King Charles IV of Spain wanted to spread the new smallpox vaccine throughout the world. Since modern refrigeration wasn’t around yet, 22 orphans were used as a makeshift storage method. The kids were vaccinated against smallpox, and their blood could then be used to make the vaccines wherever they traveled.
5. Other species immunize, too!
Ants use “social immunization” — if one ant in the colonies is infected with a fungus, the other ants lick the infected insect to spread the infection throughout the colony. This makes the whole colony immune to the fungus. Herd immunity isn’t just for humans.
6. Switzerland vaccinated foxes and virtually eradicated rabies
Scientists in the country put chicken heads laced with vaccines throughout the alps; foxes — the main source of rabies — ate the chicken heads and became immune.
7. Vaccines get rid of diseases
Once upon a time, smallpox killed an estimated 35% of those infected and left many others scarred or blind. But in 1980, mankind successfully eradicated the virus from the globe, thanks to large-scale vaccination efforts. And now we are ~this close~ to completely eradicating polio, too. In fact, vaccination has helped reduce the number of cases of several life-threatening diseases like diphtheria, rubella and haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) by more than 99% in the U.S. Tell us that's not kind of amazing.
8. And make them less damaging
Even diseases that haven’t been eradicated are less damaging than they used to be, thanks to vaccination. Flu vaccination averted an estimated 90,000 hospitalizations during the 2013-2014 season alone, despite vaccination rates being below 50 percent (higher vaccination rates could have prevented an additional 42,000!). Between 2000 and 2014, worldwide measles deaths dropped 79%. And if over the next decade we were to roll out vaccinations against Hib, pneumococcal disease and rotavirus in the 73 poorest countries in the world, we would save an estimated $63 billion in treatment and productivity savings.
9. New technologies mean vaccines work smarter, not harder
In 1900, only one vaccine was in widespread use in the U.S.: the smallpox vaccine. That one immunization contained roughly 200 tiny molecules that provoked the immune system to create antibodies (these molecules are also known as "antigens"). You would think that now that we can protect against an astonishing 14 diseases by age 2 there would be more antigens and the immune system would be working harder, right? Not so. Thanks to advances in vaccine technologies, vaccines are not only safer than ever before, but they also require fewer antigens to be effective. In fact, the entire childhood schedule now contains only an estimated 160 antigens, far less than our parents or grandparents received.
10. One man is responsible for over half of the routinely recommended vaccinations given during childhood
While Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin earned widespread fame for their polio vaccines, Maurice Hilleman isn't exactly a household name. Yet he is responsible for an incredible 8 of the 14 routinely recommended childhood immunizations in the U.S., including vaccines against measles, mumps, and meningococcal disease. And while he never received the fanfare he deserved, his work has saved tens of millions of lives. Maybe even yours.
Did we miss any amazing immunization facts? Let us know in the comments below!