The History of Vaccines Blog

National Infant Immunization Week: Spotlight on Polio

Polio in the U.S., 1910. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia In honor of National Infant Immunization Week (April 23-30), we’re highlighting diseaseson our blog  this week that are preventable by vaccination of infants. Polio is one of these diseases, and it has a remarkable background: it was scarcely visible through much of human history, was epidemic from the early- to mid-20th century, and is nearly eradicated today. The development of the polio vaccine was an important U.S. cultural phenomenon, involving the monetary contributions of millions of citizens, scientific breakthroughs by medical researchers, and the largest clinical trial ever conducted.

Few diseases frightened parents more in the early part of the 20th century than polio did. Polio struck in the warm summer months, sweeping through towns in epidemics every few years. Though most people recovered quickly from polio, some suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death. Many polio survivors were disabled for life. They were a visible, painful reminder to society of the enormous toll this disease took on young lives. More

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National Infant Immunization Week: Spotlight on Diphtheria

Diphtheria is still endemic in these countries. (Click on the image to view it at full size.) National Infant Immunization Week is April 23-30 this year. This week, the History of Vaccines blog will feature posts about several diseases that can be prevented by vaccination of infants.

Diphtheria, now nearly unknown in the United States, was once a common childhood affliction. In 1921 the country recorded more than 200,000 cases and more than 15,000 deaths, with the highest percentage of fatal cases among children younger than five. Although the last recorded case in the United States was in 2003, diphtheria remains endemic in many countries.

The disease is caused by a bacterium, Corynebacterium diphtheria, although the actual damage is not done by the bacterium itself. Instead, it secretes a toxin that damages the body's tissues. The most unique symptom of diphtheria is a thick gray substance that can spread over the nasal tissues, tonsils, larynx, and/or pharynx. This substance, called a pseudomembrane, can block the airways; in fact, diphtheria was known in Spain as "el garatillo" -- "the strangler." The toxin produced by the bacterium can also travel through the bloodsteam and damage other organs. More

History of Vaccines Wins Awards

In mid-April, The History of Vaccines was awarded two prestigious honors. First, the Webby Awards: Along with sites from National Geographic, the Exploratorium, NOVA, and Columbia University's Earth Institute, The History of Vaccines was selected as an honoree in the Science category of the Webby Awards. Colloquially known as "The Oscars of the Internet," the Webby Awards are the best-known honor for websites, presented annually by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Fewer than 15% of entries for Webby Awards were selected as honorees. More

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Baruch Blumberg, Nobel Laureate, Pioneer of Hepatitis B Research, Dies at 85

In the 1960s, a medical doctor was interested in studying the influence that a person’s genes could have on susceptibility to disease, with an eye toward developing personalized medicine. By identifying individuals at high risk for a disease and studying environmental factors that interacted with their particular genetic variations, he hoped, researchers could develop approaches that at-risk individuals could use to prevent them from getting sick.

 With colleagues, he traveled across the globe collecting blood samples from different populations. One set of samples produced a curious reaction: antibodies in the blood from a New York City hemophilia patient reacted with blood from a seemingly healthy Australian Aborigine. The serum from the hemophilia patient contained an antibody that reacted to something in the Australian’s blood.

That “something” would eventually be called the Australia antigen. The researcher was Baruch Blumberg.

Dr. Blumberg passed away on April 5, 2011, at the age of 85. More

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Spurious Vaccination in the Civil War

Jones and Spurious Vaccination in the Civil War, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Robert D. Hicks, PhD, Director, Mütter Museum/Historical Medical Library, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, contributes today’s blog post. In preparation for an exhibit on Civil War medicine at the Mütter Museum in 2012, Dr. Hicks has been researching, among other topics, the occurrence of spurious vaccination in the Civil War. Spurious vaccination was smallpox vaccination that either did not produce immunity in the recipient or that resulted in a transfer of a communicable disease such as syphilis. While physicians in the United States frequently used humanized smallpox vaccine during the Civil War, French physicians at the time were popularizing a mode of smallpox vaccination that relied solely on serial propagation of vaccine in cows. Human transmission of smallpox vaccine disappeared by the turn of the century.

According to Joseph Jones, MD, Professor of Physiology and Pathology, University of Nashville, vital medical research was “brought to a sudden and unexpected close, by the disastrous termination of the civil war.” Writing in 1866, in a radically changed and changing South in the aftermath of the Civil War which ended the previous year, Jones expressed frustration that a Confederate medical investigation on smallpox vaccinations “was destroyed during the evacuation of Richmond.” Confederate medical records in Richmond, Virginia, disappeared after the victorious Union Army torched the city. Vexed by these circumstances, Jones surveyed physicians throughout the South who served in the Confederate Army to elicit data about “spurious vaccinations” and resurrect the destroyed report. Spurious cases were smallpox vaccinations of soldiers deemed “accidents” because they conferred no subsequent immunity to the disease or, compounding misery, introduced other diseases incident to vaccination, particularly syphilis. Jones paints a dire portrait of a Confederate Army that experienced far too many deaths and disabilities due to spurious vaccinations. More

NYAS: March 28 Vaccine Event

CDC Please join the New York Academy of Sciences for “Vaccines under the Gun: Politics, Science, Media and the Law,” taking place on Monday, March 28 (1:00 PM – 5:00 PM) at the New York Academy of Sciences conference center in New York City. Esteemed speakers Paul Offit, MD (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), Dan Thomasch (Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe) and Trine Tsouderos (Chicago Tribune) will examine historical approaches to vaccination, the evolution and use of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, community-wide and personal safety considerations, social implications of these decisions, and the impact of recent legal cases (CHOP vs Health Care Workers Union 1199, AFL-CIO; Bruesewitz vs Wyeth). Perri Klass, MD (New York University) will moderate a panel discussion. This symposium is presented by the New York Academy of Sciences’ Vaccine Science Discussion Group. More

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Polio Vaccination in Cold War Hungary

OPV on sugar, Wellcome Library, London Today's blog post is contributed by Dora Vargha, RutgersUniversity , Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science Research Fellow.

The small airplane of the Swiss company Belair was already two and a half hours late, when it finally appeared above the skies of Budapest after 6 pm on July 13, 1957. A quite prestigious group greeted its West German pilot at the airport. The Communist party official shook the hands of the Western hero in the name of all Hungarian mothers, while experts from the Health Ministry and the National Public Health Institute inspected the cargo: a long-awaited shipment of polio vaccines. It had been a difficult summer with a record number of children becoming paralyzed with the disease, which caused growing concern since the beginning of the decade.

Polio epidemics hit Hungary more severely than ever before in the 1950s. Preceding World War II, poliomyelitis epidemics appeared usually every four years in Hungary, but as in many parts of the globe, outbreaks became more frequent and more deadly from 1952 and were perceived as a constant threat until 1959. Polio symbolized a destructive threat to the communist and modernist projects. It affected children in a war-stricken society, leaving crippled bodies behind at a time of heightened industrial production and recuperation from the war. The communist state, which positioned itself as a provider of free childcare and healthcare, was facing a serious challenge with the epidemic that worked against all of its ideals of production. Vaccinating the population in Hungary became a top priority soon after the vaccine became available. More

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Cholera Outbreak in Haiti May Reach Almost Double Predicted Cases

Dr. Jaime Ferrán Inoculating for Cholera in Spain, 1885. Image courtesy National Library of Medicine. In October 2010, cholera broke out in Haiti for the first time in decades, devastating the country while it was still recovering from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and left millions homeless just nine months earlier. In typical conditions, cholera can be treated easily with an oral rehydration solution or, in severe cases, via intravenous fluids to replace what is lost to vomiting and diarrhea. With quick treatment, nearly all patients recover. Left untreated, however, the dehydration and shock caused by the disease can kill within a matter of hours.

In Haiti, the country’s already-poor infrastructure had been additionally damaged by the earthquake, leaving conditions ripe for water- and food-borne diseases; within a month’s time, the cholera outbreak had spread across the country and killed almost 1,000 people. By the end of the year the death toll in Haiti had passed 3,000, and the Haitian government predicted that there would be more than 400,000 cases by the end of October 2011. Now, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of California San Francisco have found that the number may reach almost twice that, predicting 779,000 cases of cholera and 11,100 deaths by the end of November. More

Interview with Paul Offit and Seth Mnookin

On March 1, The History of Vaccines hosted "Vaccine Science, Realities, and Fears in the Popular Mind" at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Paul Offit, MD, an infectious disease physician and vaccine developer, and Seth Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, discussed their new books as well as the past and future of vaccination as depicted in the media, among parents, and in the medical world. More

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What We're Researching: Typhoid Fever History

First typhoid inoculation at the U.S. Army Medical School. Recently we’ve been developing new material for our historical timelines. In the near future, we’re planning to add some entries on typhoid fever and the development of typhoid vaccines. In the meantime, we wanted to share a bit of what we've found. More

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