A discovery 225 years ago transformed our health

The history of vaccines shows their power — and the hope they bring

Robert Koch during a vaccination in a hospital in the presence of other doctors.

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020 changed the course of COVID-19 in Washington — with many people getting vaccinated to protect themselves and their communities. Currently, about 75% of people 12 and older in Washington are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As more people get vaccinated, we get closer to putting the pandemic behind us.

For more than 200 years, vaccines have helped keep us safe. In fact, vaccines have saved millions of lives against vaccine-preventable diseases for hundreds of years, reducing the burden of diseases like tetanus and measles by 92%-100%.

Let’s explore how vaccines helped stop the spread of severe illnesses in Washington.

Edward Jenner and smallpox in Washington state

Smallpox was a fast-spreading, fatal disease that caused patients to have painful blisters on their skin. Before a vaccine existed, up to 60% of people infected with smallpox died. However, doctors in countries like Turkey were able to prevent smallpox and reduce severe illness long before a vaccine was developed, by treating healthy people with small amounts of the virus taken from sick people.

In 1796, cowpox, a skin infection from the same viral family as smallpox, caused a milder version of the disease on the hands of exposed dairy workers. Expanding on previous research, British scientist Dr. Edward Jenner found that injecting matter from a cowpox sore into his patients helped protect them from smallpox. Thus, the world’s first vaccine was born. Still, it took time for widespread adoption.

By 1913, misinformation and untrue medical advice surrounding the smallpox vaccine spread throughout the Pacific Northwest. This influenced people to refuse vaccination at the height of one of Washington’s earliest recorded pandemics. In 1919, smallpox jumped from 390 to 4,369 reported cases in Washington.

In response, local health officials required proof of vaccination at schools and in public settings. As vaccinations increased, smallpox became less common in the United States. Worldwide, the disease was declared eradicated in 1980. If you’re 41 years old or younger, you’ve lived in a world with no smallpox — thanks to vaccines.

Learnings from the 1918 flu pandemic

During World War I, the 1918 flu pandemic reached Seattle. Public officials in Seattle and King County closed public gathering locations such as churches and schools. Officials only permitted gatherings in the open air while also requiring everyone to wear masks on public transit like the Seattle Streetcar. As the virus spread, it ultimately killed 1,513 Seattleites and 6,571 people in Washington. Unlike modern flu outbreaks, there was no vaccine to protect people from severe flu illness.

Thanks to support from the U.S. Army, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. and Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first inactivated flu vaccine in 1942. Research in the 1940s also led to the present-day practice of regularly adjusting flu vaccines to fight mutations of the flu virus. In 2009 the H1N1 Influenza virus became the first major pandemic in the 21st century. There were 1,667 cases of severe flu reported in Washington, but because of widespread vaccination, only 98 of these cases resulted in death.

Polio at Washington State University

Also known as infantile paralysis, polio is a disabling and life-threatening disease. It spreads from person to person and infects the spinal cord.

In 1928, Washington State University (WSU) student John Chaplin died from polio. In response, WSU quarantined its campus, requesting students avoid “over-night visiting, picture shows, church or Sunday school” and recommended “only exercising in open air.” These precautions at WSU helped stop polio from spreading, similar to Washington’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order.

Polio outbreaks continued across Washington until Dr. Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in 1953 and Dr. Albert Sabin invented the oral, live-polio-virus vaccine in 1957. With a vaccine, polio in America decreased from 13.9 cases per 100,000 people to 0.8 cases per 100,000 people between 1954 and 1961. Since 1979, no new polio cases have originated in this country.

Measles outbreaks 2019

Measles is a very contagious illness with mild to life-threatening symptoms. In 2019, there were two outbreaks of measles in Washington, totaling 87 cases. The only way to prevent it is by getting the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. Thanks to this vaccine, we almost never see a case of rubella in Washington now.

Before a measles vaccine was available in 1963, four million people were infected with measles every year, leading to over 500 deaths annually. In recent measles outbreaks in Washington, most cases were reported among people who were not vaccinated against the disease.

Lessons from Our Past

Vaccination has protected people in the United States for over 200 years. Many diseases are now eliminated or far less common — thanks to vaccines. Now, it’s up to us to make sure we learn the lessons from our history.

Addressing misinformation in our communities is important to ending the COVID-19 pandemic for good. Fear-based misinformation may have contributed to some of Washington’s over 9,000 COVID-19 deaths. We can’t always shield ourselves from social media, but we can research the sources that friends and family post online. By taking a closer look at trusted medical resources, you can help stop the spread of COVID-19 and misinformation at the same time.

More Information

This blog is accurate as of the date of posting. Information changes rapidly, so check the state’s COVID-19 website for the most up-to-date info at coronavirus.wa.gov. You can also sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles.

The COVID-19 vaccine is now available to everyone 5 and older. For more information about the vaccine, visit CovidVaccineWA.org and use the vaccine locator tool to find an appointment. The COVID-19 vaccine is provided at no cost to you.

WA Notify can alert you if you’ve been near another user who tested positive for COVID-19. Add WA Notify to your phone today: WANotify.org

Answers to your questions or concerns about COVID-19 in Washington State may be found at our website. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.

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From the Washington State Department of Health

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Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Department of Health

Protecting and improving the health of people in Washington State.

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