A Bit Of History

The discovery of vaccination, as a technique to defeat infectious diseases, is due to Edward Jenner (1746-1823), who in England, at the end of the eighteenth century, devoted himself to the battle against smallpox .

At the time the disease was experiencing an alarming increase in Europe: in 1753 in Paris 20,000 people died of smallpox; in Naples in 1768 60,000 died in a few weeks and every year England counted 40,000 deaths due to the Variola virus .

A country physician in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, Jenner observed that farmers infected with cowpox did not fall ill with its much more severe human variant (smallpox) once the disease was overcome .

In May 1796, Jenner took some purulent material from the pustule of a woman with cowpox and injected it into the arm of an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. After a few months, the boy was inoculated with human pox pus, but, as Jenner predicted, the virus did not take root. James was the first to become immune to smallpox without ever having been sick of it.

Pediatrics On Line / History of Smallpox

Edward Jenner vaccinates a child
In Italy, it was Luigi Sacco (1769-1836) who spread the Jennerian vaccination. Doctor of the Cisalpine Republic, born in Varese, graduated in Pavia and head physician of the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, at the end of 1799 he vaccinated himself and then five children with pus collected from two cows affected by cow-pox . After some time, he verified his immunity and that of those vaccinated with the graft of human smallpox. In 1806 Sacco reported having personally vaccinated or vaccinated in the Departments of Mincio, Adige, Basso Po and Panaro alone more than 130,000 people. In short, the number of vaccinated people in the Kingdom of Italy reached one and a half million, drastically reducing mortality from smallpox. The vaccine soon spread also in the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.
After the unification of Italy, smallpox vaccination was made mandatory for all newborns starting from 1888.
The obligation was abolished in Italy in 1981 , after the World Health Organization, WHO, decreed in May 1979 eradicated smallpox from the Earth.

Pediatrics On Line / History of Smallpox

EpiCentro / Smallpox

Luigi Sacco
The fight against diphtheria and tetanus is one of the great nineteenth-century advances in the health field. The diphtheria and tetanus vaccines, based on the administration of the respective inactivated toxin (antitoxin), are due to the studies of the German Emil Adolf von Behring (1854-1917) and to the discoveries made with the Japanese colleague Shibasaburo Kitasato (1853-1931), while they were working together with the Berlin Institute of Hygiene. In 1880, Behring rendered an animal temporarily immune to diphtheria and tetanus by injecting it with infected blood serum from another animal and demonstrated that this practice was not only preventive, but also curative, if the serum was injected at the first symptoms of the disease. For expressing the concept of antitoxins, Behring is considered one of the founders of immunology.

Today, despite the extensive use of vaccination, diphtheria in the world is not yet completely eradicated and is endemic in developing countries. In Italy , however, where diphtheria vaccination has been mandatory since 1939, the last case dates back to 1996 .

As for tetanus, in our country, where vaccination has been compulsory since 1968 , the number of patients has drastically decreased. On average, about seventy are notified each year, mostly in older people.

Emil Adolf von Behring
Important goals in Europe were achieved thanks to the research of the French biologist and chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), considered the father of microbiology. Pasteur found the antidote to various bacterial infections such as anthrax , in 1881, and rabies , in 1885.

Having established that, to obtain resistance to a certain infection, it was necessary to inoculate the organism with the same bacterium as the disease, the originality of Pasteur’s vaccines lies in the use of artificially “weakened” bacteria in the laboratory. By mitigating their aggression, the possibility of a violent response from the organism was reduced. This discovery revolutionized the study of infectious diseases. In 1888 Pasteur founded a research institute in Paris for the study and treatment of infectious diseases and directed it until his death. Even today, the Pasteur Institute is a world center of biological research and offers important contributions for the knowledge and defeat of old and new infectious diseases.

Treccani / Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur
In the first half of the twentieth century, Europe and then the United States recorded dramatic epidemics of polio , a serious viral disease caused by the poliovirus . Between the 1940s and 1950s, it killed or paralyzed more than half a million people worldwide every year. In the battle against polio two great American scientists took the field who, following different paths, both found a way to defeat it. Jonas Salk (1914-1995) presented his polio vaccine on April 12, 1955. It was an “inactivated” vaccine (IPV), to be administered by intramuscular injection. To make it available to everyone, he never patented it. Just two years later, in 1957, Albert Sabin(1906-1993) developed another, with different characteristics: a “live attenuated” vaccine (OPV), to be administered orally. It was the latter that was used, starting from 1963 , for the worldwide vaccination campaign that would have led to drastically reduce the cases of polio in the world and to eradicate the disease in Europe.

Polio vaccination campaign poster
Today, in Italy, measles seems a distant memory, as well as mumps and rubella seem ancient diseases, but before the spread of their vaccines, school-age children were rare who managed to avoid them. As for measles, in particular, it is estimated that until its vaccination spread worldwide, that is, in 1980, it killed an average of 2.5 million children every year. The first vaccine to prevent measles dates back to 1963. Vaccines for mumps and rubella were made available respectively in 1967 and 1969. The American microbiologist Maurice Hilleman (1919-2005) worked on all three. their combination and therefore the birth, in 1971 , of the trivalent vaccinemeasles-mumps-rubella (MMR).

Hilleman and his staff also developed many other important vaccines over the years, including those against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chicken pox, meningitis, pneumonia and the haemophilic bacterium of influenza.

Moloecularlab / Maurice Hilleman