On May 14, 1796, the British physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the effectiveness of a vaccine as a means of preventing smallpox. A vaccine is an injection that helps a person develop immunity to a disease. Before Jenner’s time, no parents counted their children safe until all had passed through smallpox. The disease was an ever-present horror throughout history. In England, however, many people observed that dairymaids who had caught cowpox could not catch smallpox. Cowpox is a minor disease of cattle that causes sores on the hands of people who come into contact with cattle. Unlike smallpox, cowpox carries little risk of death.
On May 14, 1796, Jenner took matter from the hand of Sarah Nelmes, a local dairymaid. She had become infected with cowpox while milking cows. Jenner then made two cuts on the arm of James Phipps, a healthy 8-year-old boy, and inserted the matter from one of Sarah’s cowpox sores. The boy then caught cowpox. Forty-eight days later, Jenner introduced smallpox matter into the boy’s arm. The smallpox matter had no effect, because the boy had been vaccinated with cowpox matter. Jenner’s experiment proved to be successful. This was the first vaccination ever given.
Medical historians believe that, in the 1900’s alone, smallpox killed more than 300 million people. It scarred and blinded millions more. Yet by the 1970’s, the virus that causes smallpox had been completely eliminated from nature. This amazing medical achievement was accomplished because of vaccination.
Scientists have used Jenner’s approach to develop vaccines to combat many diseases, including chickenpox, diphtheria, influenza, measles, meningitis, mumps, pneumococcal pneumonia, poliomyelitis, rabies, rubella (German measles), tetanus, whooping cough, and yellow fever. Most children in the United States, for example, receive about 11 recommended vaccinations by the time they enter school. Vaccinations rank among the most important accomplishments in medicine. In fact, vaccines have saved more lives throughout the world than any other medical invention–more than antibiotics or even surgery. Only sanitation measures to produce clean water have saved more lives than vaccines.
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