The Science & History of Vaccines

The word vaccine has a particular and curious origin. It comes from the name for the cowpox virus vaccinia and it was first used by Dr Edward Jenner. He observed that milkmaids infected with cowpox were immune to the smallpox epidemics that regularly occurred where he lived. Jenner made history in 1796 when he gave a patient what became known as the first “vaccinia vaccine”, a vaccine made from the cowpox virus. The doctor took pus from the cowpox lesions on a milkmaid’s hands and introduced that fluid into a cut he made in the arm of an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. Six weeks later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox, but James Phipps did not develop the infection, then or on 20 subsequent exposures to the disease. In fact, Phipps later married, had two children, and lived long enough to attend Jenner’s funeral in 1823. Through extensive research Jenner discovered that cox pox protected people from smallpox. This was a ground-breaking discovery and it laid the way for the scientific fields of immunology, vaccination and preventive health which we benefit from today. Thanks to progress in science and a massive vaccine campaign by the World Health Organization, smallpox was finally eradicated from the planet in 1980.

Today with Covid19, vaccines are on everyone’s mind and you can follow the development of vaccines for Covid 19 at an excellent live vaccine tracker created by The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker.html The Jenner Institute at Oxford University which is currently working on a promising vaccine for Covid 19 is actually named after Dr Edward Jenner.

This year in Ireland, people are encouraged to get the flu vaccine as doing so could be vital to help the health system cope with any additional strain caused by Covid-19.While flu vaccination is important in its own right, it is really important that the country is not overwhelmed with “dual outbreaks” of influenza and Covid-19. Flu season runs from September to end of April and the strain of flu virus changes every year. The flu vaccine helps your immune system to produce antibodies (proteins that fight infection). Contrary to what you might read on social media, there is no aluminium, thiomersal, mercury, gelatine or porcine gelatin in the vaccine used in the 2020/2021fl campaign. You can read about what’s in the vaccine here – http://www.hpra.ie/img/uploaded/vaccines/SPC_PA2131013001.pdf

The vaccine for flu changes every year because viruses evolve by mutating so there are changes in their genetic code over time. The way it happens is a bit like the game Chinese Whispers, where one person says a word to another and it’s passed on further. By the time it reaches the last person in the game, the original word is lost and has transformed into another word. We can think of a biological genetic material as a sequence of letters and over time, sequences mutate: Mutations occur randomly, and any changes that occur in a given virus will be inherited by all copies of the next generation. Then, much as we could try to decode how one word becomes another in a game of Chinese Whispers, scientists can use models on genetic evolution to try to determine the most likely evolutionary history of the virus. This year’s seasonal flu vaccine contains protection against 4 strains of flu virus. These are recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the strains most likely to be circulating this season. The four strains are:

  • an A/Guangdong-Maonan/SWL1536/2019 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus
  • an A/Hong Kong/2671/2019 (H3N2)-like virus
  • a B/Washington/02/2019 (B/Victoria lineage)-like virus
  • a B/Phuket/3073/2013 (B/Yamagata lineage)-like virus

You can read more about the flu vaccine programme in Ireland and the flu vaccine here. https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/immunisation/pubinfo/flu-vaccination/about-the-vaccine/

There is a lot information online about vaccines and vaccine development and it’s important to be aware of how information is developed and shared. You can sign up to be a Share Verified Information Volunteer with the United Nations here. https://shareverified.com/en

A recent study by the British Medical Journal concluded that over one-quarter of the most-viewed videos on YouTube about COVID-19 contained misleading information. Consider the best places to get evidence based, verified peer reviewed information on health and vaccines. Roll up your sleeve and help in the fight against the flu, this winter it is more important than ever.

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