10 Feb

With measles and the whole issue of vaccinations in the news, I thought I’d share a basic primer on the subject.

What is a vaccine?

Our immune system is constantly protecting us against us bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. That’s why people receiving treatments that suppress their immune systems are very susceptible to infections. The idea of vaccinations is giving a person a component of an infectious organism to stimulate his or her immune system to act against it before it causes harm. It’s training your immune system to be on guard against particular invaders.

The history of vaccines

Edward Jenner was a country doctor living in England who in 1796 performed the world’s first vaccination. He took pus from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand and injected it into an eight year old boy named James Phipps. Six weeks later Jenner injected two sites on Phipps’s arm with smallpox, yet the boy was unaffected by this as well as subsequent exposures. Based on twelve such experiments and sixteen additional case histories he had collected since the 1770s, Jenner published a volume called Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccine. Jenner came up with his idea by the observation that milkmaids infected with cowpox, visible as pustules on the hand or forearm, were immune to subsequent outbreaks of smallpox that periodically swept through the area.

Since Jenner’s discovery, governments have invested in vaccines. Initially vaccines were considered a matter of national pride and prestige. In the twentieth century, a standard battery of childhood vaccinations were developed and eventually required for public school attendance.

Some Diseases Vaccines Prevent


In this disease, people develop muscle weakness and the inability to move. The weakness can extend to the diaphragm, the muscle that moves our lungs so that people have to be placed on a ventilator to support breathing. Historically, a ventilator called on iron lung was used to artificially maintain respiration until a person recovered sufficiently to breath independently.


When pregnant women become infected with this virus, it can cause serious birth defects such as heart problems, hearing and vision loss, and intellectual disability.


This bacteria causes a membrane to develop in the oral cavity which can block the airway, causing people to suffocate to death.


This virus can cause cough, inflamed eyes, sore throat, fever, and red, blotchy skin. In about 30% of cases complications such as blindness, inflammation of the brain, and pneumonia occur.

The Impact of Vaccines

A little more than a century ago, before vaccines the U.S. infant mortality rate was 20 percent, and the childhood mortality rate before age five was 20 percent.

Are Vaccines Safe?

In the vast majority of cases, vaccines are effective and cause no side effects or only mild reactions such as fever or injection at the vaccine site. In 1998, the medical journal Lancet published a study linking the measles vaccine to autism. The study was subsequently found to be fraudulent so that the journal retracted the paper and the study’s author Andrew Wakefield lost his medical license.

Why Get Vaccinated?

Vaccines presented outbreaks of infectious diseases and save lives. When a certain portion of a community is vaccinated against a contagious disease, most members of the community are protected against it. Even those who aren’t eligible for certain vaccines, such as infants, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals are protected. This is called herd immunity. So when you get vaccinated, you are not only protecting yourself. You are also protecting the most vulnerable among us from getting sick.


Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “Vaccines

  1. Christa Broderick

    February 27, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Dear Dr. M, Thanks for this article on vaccines.
    Yesterday I attended a lecture by Dr. Anthony Atala on Regenerative Medicine. The lecture was broadcast from Wake Forest University to Southwestern University here in Georgetown as part of the Brown Symposium. At some point during the lecture, Dr. Atala asked for a show of hands for those who remembered the Iron Lung back in the 1950s when the polio epidemic was raging. A smattering of hands(mine included) went up. I found this insightful in that so many people, younger people, had no knowledge of this event. By the time Salk had a vaccine for polio, there were long lines everywhere to receive the shots. There must have been some side effects but when people are dying around you and around the country, you jump at the chance to get vaccinated.
    I think some current parents who decide not to vaccinate their children should read about the history of plagues and life-saving vaccines.
    As always, I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Ben

    April 23, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    I appreciate your succinct style. I read another article about vaccines and autism yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, which also shows no link between them:

  3. bmarroq

    April 23, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    I appreciate this, and I read another article on the link between vaccines and autism yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, that there is none:


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