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A brief history of vaccination

Image of a nurse handing out a piece of paper to a woman holding a baby.
Vaccinations in Ghana ©WHO Francis Kokoroko

Since at least the 1400s, people have looked for ways to protect themselves against infectious diseases. From the practice of “variolation” in the 15th century to today’s mRNA vaccines, immunization has a long history. Integral to that history has been the World Health Organization (WHO), whose global vaccine drives through the 20th and 21st centuries have played such a crucial role in reducing serious illness. For World Immunization Week, WHO has teamed up with Google Arts & Culture and scientific institutions from around the world to bring this history vividly to life with A Brief History of Vaccination.

From insufflation to vaccination

Looking back at the history of vaccination, with detailed stories drawn from medical archives, you’ll discover how we arrived at the jabs that have saved lives across the world. While you’ll encounter famous pioneers like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur, you’ll also learn that vaccination has a much older history. In 15th-century China, for instance, there existed the practice of “insufflation” — blowing dried smallpox scabs into the nostril with a pipe to prevent natural smallpox, which was far more dangerous.

It was in the 20th century that earlier discoveries really started to bear fruit. Smallpox was eradicated globally and vaccines for polio, measles, influenza, hepatitis B, meningitis and many other diseases were developed. It was also the century that saw the inauguration of the WHO and its vital “Expanded Programme on Immunization,”which opened up a truly global front against vaccine-preventable diseases. A Brief History of Vaccination helps you to experience these great advances through photos, archive footage and historic scientific documents.

There are also those whose stories aren’t so well known, but nevertheless deserve to be told. You’ll learn about the enlightened Grand Duke of Tuscany who experimented with inoculation in the 18th century. Also featured here are the Mexican authorities whose efforts to defeat smallpox in the 19th century were ahead of their time.

Unfinished history

Of course, the struggle against infectious disease is ongoing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, new stories emerged of ingenuity and resilience against the odds. You’ll learn of the heroism of Spanish and British health workers, and the man from Uttarakhand who became a one-man ambulance service in the remote mountain villages of northern India.

As authorities and communities around the world have strived to contain the pandemic, it has become ever more apparent that education is key to any successful vaccination program. With this in mind, educators can find a clear and accessible lesson plan that will provide learners with useful information about vaccination history.

Through A Brief History of Vaccination we learn, above all, that our fight against infectious diseases has united people across continents and cultures. As Louis Pasteur observed, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.”

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