Vaccines-Wider Uses, Easier to Administer, Safer - The Future of Medicine
Edward Jenner vaccinates a child against smallpox
Do you remember the story of Edward Jenner? Back in the 1700s smallpox was a serious, debilitating disease that often led to death. Jenner noticed that milkmaids rarely, if ever, got smallpox. What they did develop, however, was cowpox, a relatively minor disease, although it did leave pox marks on the hands and sometimes the faces of these young ladies. So he reasoned that maybe having cowpox gave the body some type of defense against the more serious smallpox.
In 1796, to test his theory, Jenner took the fluid from cowpox lesions and used it to inoculate the arm of uninfected individuals. It was a pretty crude system of putting the material from the cowpox lesion on the arm and then taking a needle and scratching or scarifying that area. It worked. And with relatively little change since then, the smallpox vaccine has been very effective.
Indeed, it was used to eradicate smallpox from the world a few decades ago. The common name for cowpox was vaccinia, from which our term vaccine arises. Jenner was the father of vaccination and in the process discovered a method to stop the epidemic of smallpox, rampant in England at the time.
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Later came vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (the DPT shot), polio, the common childhood infections of measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles), and later still, chicken pox and hepatitis B. Vaccines were developed to prevent some types of childhood meningitis like Hemophilus and other serious infectious aliments. Vaccines for adults came along as well, such as one for Pneumococcus to prevent one type of pneumonia in older adults and the annual influenza shot to prevent the flu. Most recently vaccines for shingles, cervical cancer, and rotavirus have been approved.
If you think about it, vaccines are the most cost effective, specific means of preventing infectious disease. They are cheap, easy to administer, effective, and very safe. What can we expect in the coming years? No more shots! Well, not as many shots. Many vaccines will be given by other routes such as by mouth or by skin patches. Usually only one dose of each vaccine will be enough because of the development of new adjuvants.
There will be vaccines for many infections not yet covered and improved vaccines to replace older ones that will be more effective and have fewer side effects. Not only infections, but also many chronic diseases from coronary artery disease to multiple sclerosis to cancer may be preventable or treatable with vaccines. Indeed, vaccines will become the cornerstone of much of medicine, especially preventive medicine.
And in the developing world where infections remain the major cause of death, frequently in infancy and young children, vaccines will be the principal means of bringing these diseases under control. And finally, expect to see designer vaccines, ones developed for a specific purpose for a specific individual.
Last Modified: June 11, 2010