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Mass Vaccination

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Mass Vaccination

Chances are that you have taken part in a mass vaccination of some description. You might remember the most recent time but you probably don't know about all your childhood vaccines. Ask your parents and the answer to all of the different diseases you have needed protection against may surprise you. Mass vaccination has been a large part of the UK's operation against dangerous diseases since the advent of the National Health Service in 1948, but it wasn't always this way. Let's examine the history of vaccinations and how they became essential to saving lives in the UK.

Mass vaccination meaning

First things first, let's try and understand exactly what mass vaccination is.

Vaccination refers to a way of treating disease by the use of a vaccine to create immunity. This has become an effective method of tackling epidemics and pandemics. The idea of mass vaccination is to deliver a large number of doses at one time. In doing this, the population create a herd immunity meaning that bacteria and viruses cannot spread effectively. This can ultimately lead to the extinction of a disease.

Vaccine

A substance that is normally injected to provide protection against disease by stimulating the body to create antibodies that protect it against future infection.

Epidemic

An outbreak of a disease or illness in a particular community at a particular time.

Pandemic

The spread of a disease across a country or the whole world at a particular time.

Herd immunity

The protection that is provided when enough of the population is immune to an infectious disease. This relies upon mass vaccination or previous infection.

History of mass vaccinations

Until the 1700s, there was almost no way of directly preventing disease. This changed when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu returned from Turkey in 1718 and spread her knowledge of inoculation to treat smallpox, which at the time was an epidemic without a cure.

Inoculation is a process whereby a patient is infected by a disease in order to give them future immunity. In Montagu's method, a cut was made in a patient's arm. Pus from an infected smallpox sufferer was then placed inside the wound. Unfortunately, this was not wholly successful; smallpox was a deadly disease and giving it to a patient could often prove fatal. It did nothing to lessen the spread and in 1751 3,500 smallpox deaths were recorded in London alone.1 Not until the work of Edward Jenner did a genuine vaccine breakthrough occur.

The birth of vaccinations

Jenner was a countrysidMass vaccinations Edward Jenner StudySmarterEdward Jenner, Wikimedia Commonse doctor who worked on farms. Whilst carrying out his duties, he noticed a curiosity. The milkmaids did not contract smallpox.

Instead, they caught a similar disease, the far milder cowpox. Jenner needed to enquire further about this link. In doing so, he did a scientific experiment, a practice rare for his period.

In 1796, Jenner used the pus from the sores of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes who had cowpox. He injected it into James Phipps and subsequently infected him with smallpox. Miraculously, he didn't catch the deadly disease. Publishing his findings in 1798, he invented the word vaccination using the Latin word for cow, "vacca".

There was some initial scepticism towards vaccines, not least because of the hysteria of getting a cow disease, but also due to the fear of doctors who gave inoculations that they would lose business.

These initial hesitations were brushed aside and with the funding of parliament, a vaccination centre was opened. Given the effectiveness of the vaccine, it soon became compulsory in 1853 and had a fantastic impact on reducing the spread of smallpox. Unfortunately, Jenner would never find out as he died in 1823, just less than 40 years before Louis Pasteur's Germ Theory (1861).

Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch's contributions to biological and medical science in the second half of the nineteenth century were instrumental in the development of mass vaccinations. Firstly, Pasteur discovered germs in 1861 and with it the knowledge of what caused disease. Building on this, Robert Koch began to identify microbes of specific diseases such as anthrax in 1876. Finally, with this knowledge, Pasteur created vaccines for anthrax (1881) and rabies (1885). These discoveries laid the foundations for mass vaccination campaigns in the 20th century.

UK wartime vaccination poster for diphtheria, Wikimedia Commons

Mass vaccination 1: Diphtheria

  • A disease that had plagued much of the world during the first half of the 20th century, diphtheria is characterised by difficulty breathing and can prove fatal.
  • In 1923, scientists Manny and Hopkins used formaldehyde to create diphtheria and tetanus vaccines.
  • After World War II had already started, in 1940 diphtheria caused 60,000 cases and 3000 deaths in Britain.
  • Fearing the spread of a dangerous disease during wartime conditions, the government embarked on a vaccination program, targeting children to create herd immunity.
  • After the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, all children were able to be vaccinated by the time they were one year old.
  • The government campaigned on a huge scale, using radio, TV and posters.
  • It was a success; in 1957 there were only 38 cases of diphtheria and 6 deaths.

Mass vaccination 2: Polio
US Polio oral vaccine poster (1963), Wikimedia Commons

  • Another disease that is particularly dangerous for children, polio attacks the central nervous system, digestion and the bloodstream causing paralysis (loss of ordinary muscle function).
  • It had a devastating effect slightly after diphtheria. Over 30,000 children became disabled as a result of polio between 1947 and 1958.
  • In 1956 the British vaccination campaign began. It focused on vaccinating everyone who was under 40.
  • In 1960 Polish-American Albert Sabin developed a polio vaccine that could be swallowed orally which had greater efficacy and provided longer immunity than an injection. It is still used today for its convenience.
  • Again the campaign proved a success. Polio was virtually extinct in the UK by the 1970s.
  • Once more the centralised coordination of the NHS was instrumental in driving the campaign.

Mass vaccination: benefits and risks

As demonstrated by the above statistics, it is clear that mass vaccinations have an overwhelmingly positive effect. However, they don't come without their fair share of risks. We will examine the positives and drawbacks of mass vaccinations below.

BenefitsRisks
  • Most infections are mild, but without mass vaccination, they can cause a far greater number of serious illnesses or deaths.
  • No vaccine is 100% effective and depends on the immune system and health of the person who is receiving it. This can be determined by age or their interaction with other health conditions.
  • Unvaccinated children experience the greatest vulnerability, particularly for diseases such as polio, whooping cough and measles.
  • Vaccines can have minor side effects such as headaches, nausea and pain in the arm which has been injected.
  • Mass vaccination allows herd immunity to be achieved by a community and stops the disease from spreading from person to person if enough people accept the vaccine.
  • In some cases, allergic reactions to vaccines can take place. Ingredients in vaccines need to be checked and any previous allergic reactions to vaccines have to be monitored.
  • Vaccines can completely eradicate some diseases, for example, polio in 2002 in the UK. They have also reduced measles and diphtheria by up to 99.9% according to the NHS website.
  • There are a small number of case studies where vaccinations have had fatal consequences. The link between Covid-19 vaccines and cardiac arrests in sportspeople is being investigated.
  • The NHS website estimates that vaccinations prevent 3 million worldwide deaths every year.
  • Vaccine scepticism is common nowadays. This has caused a rise in both measles and mumps in the UK. Without mass coordination, vaccines become less effective.

Impact of mass vaccinations

The impact of mass vaccinations cannot be understated. Experts have argued that apart from sanitised water no other development has contributed to population growth and mortality reduction in the same way as mass vaccination.2

It is hard to argue with this and we have seen vaccines as the key contributor to the lifting of restrictions in the UK during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Mass vaccinations, then, are another example of effective centralised coordination that the establishment of the NHS has allowed for. Their hands-on approach to public health and lifestyle has saved many lives. Health organisations work in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies; for Covid-19 factories use computers that produce 600 vaccines in a single minute.

Mass vaccinations - Key takeaways

  • Mass vaccinations are an effective way of creating herd immunity artificially and greatly reducing the transmission of very infectious diseases.
  • After inoculation was an ineffective way of protecting against disease, Edward Jenner found that using cowpox against the more dangerous smallpox worked as a vaccine.
  • This vaccination campaign was a success but the science was not available to explain why until the understanding of a Germ Theory in 1861 and the work of Pasteur and Koch.
  • The creation of the NHS has led to many successful vaccination campaigns including diphtheria and polio.
  • There are risks to vaccines, but it could be argued that these are outweighed by the sheer number of lives saved.

1. College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 'London Smallpox Deaths', The History of Vaccines. (2022)

2. Plotkin and Mortimer, 'Vaccines', Philadelphia, PA: Saunders. (1998)

Frequently Asked Questions about Mass Vaccination

Mass vaccination is the vaccination of a large proportion of a community in order to reach herd immunity against dangerous diseases.

Vaccines are mass-produced with the help of governments and large pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, who work in tandem.

Mass vaccination works by providing a level of immunity to the population. Once a certain number of people are vaccinated it is far more difficult for a disease to spread.

Mass vaccination greatly reduces death and serious effects of diseases. If done effectively, it can completely eradicate some diseases.

The first mass vaccination in Britain was against smallpox in the eighteenth century. Since the twentieth century vaccination against various diseases has become prominent. These include polio and diphtheria.

Final Mass Vaccination Quiz

Question

What is herd immunity?

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Answer

The protection of a community against disease due to vaccination or previous infection. 

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Question

Who was responsible for introducing inoculation to Britain in 1718?

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Answer

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

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Question

Which disease helped Edward Jenner cure smallpox?

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Answer

Cowpox

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Question

Who was Sarah Nelmes?

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Answer

A milkmaid

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Question

Which important event occurred in 1861?

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Answer

Pasteur's Germ Theory

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Question

Who created a diphtheria vaccine in 1923?

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Answer

Manny and Hopkins

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Question

What were the effects of polio?

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Answer

Polio caused child disability when untreated by vaccinations.

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Question

How do you take an oral vaccine?

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Answer

In your mouth

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Question

What are the warning signs for allergic reactions to vaccines?

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Answer

Allergies to previous vaccines or allergies to ingredients in a vaccine.

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Question

Why are measles and mumps on the rise?

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Answer

Due to vaccine scepticism

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Question

What has allowed mass vaccination programs to be well organised?

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Answer

The National Health Service

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Question

Which of these has contributed, alongside mass vaccination, to population growth?

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Answer

Clean water

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