5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines

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Vaccines are a crucial part of maintaining public health. Here are five things about vaccines—including the ones you may have received!—that you might not know.

1. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added. ... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

2. Vaccines Aren't Just About Health

While the primary effect of a vaccine is to protect human health, vaccines also help people and communities in other ways. The secondary effects of vaccines include protecting income, improving learning, and promoting economic growth. The logic is simple: If you're not sick, you're able to work, go to school, or otherwise go about your business without draining resources treating disease. Here's an animated video from the GAVI Alliance with one perspective on how it works:

This is exactly why I get a flu shot every year. I'd rather be able to work (helping myself, my family, and at least my local economy) than run the risk of getting sick and having to waste a week on the couch. My choice to vaccinate myself may also mean that others won't get sick, because I won't pass the flu on to them. (That is, assuming this year's flu vaccine targets the flu strains that actually might reach me.)

3. Many Vaccines Can Be Delivered Without Needles

Image courtesy YouTube user MRSCALL60

While we often think of shots as the main way to receive vaccines, many vaccines can be delivered in other ways. Some can use a nasal spray (you may have seen the FluMist flu vaccine—it's not the only one), others via drops of liquid you swallow (the modern polio vaccine is one), others via tablets dissolved under the tongue, and many others can be delivered using needle-free technology. We have a whole article about ways you can get "shots" without needles. Even Batman uses needle-free technology!

4. The Measles Vaccine Turned 50 Last Year

Until 1963, getting measles was just part of being a kid in the United States, like getting chickenpox. The sad part is that measles can be a very serious illness; prior to the vaccine, measles led to tens of thousands of hospitalizations in the U.S. every year, sometimes caused brain damage, and killed an estimated 2.6 million people each year around the world. A vaccine was introduced in 1963 that cut the number of annual U.S. measles cases from 4,000,000 to 2,000 in the course of just four years. That vaccine has saved tens of millions of lives.

We still see some measles cases in the U.S., despite the disease being effectively eliminated for a decade. A JAMA report explains (emphasis added):

Since 2001, there has been fewer than 1 case of measles per 1 million US individuals; rubella reached this same threshold in 2004. Of the few measles cases that did occur in the United States, 84% were imported from countries where measles is circulating or linked to imported cases. An uptick of measles clusters in pockets of unvaccinated US residents has raised concerns among public health officials and renewed efforts to improve vaccine coverage here and abroad.

The WHO also announced yesterday that worldwide measles mortality rates are at historic lows, saying in part, "[Between 2000 and 2012,] an estimated 13.8 million deaths have been prevented by measles vaccination." On the other hand, they reported that the disease is still a major problem: "Measles continues to be a global threat, with five of six WHO regions still experiencing large outbreaks...."

5. FDR Created the March of Dimes to Fight Polio

Image courtesy of March of Dimes

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from polio, and created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (commonly known as the "March of Dimes") to fight it. The March of Dimes funded research that led to effective polio vaccines developed by Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, which in turn have rid more than 99% of the world of polio. Celebrities joined the cause, and even Elvis Presley (shown above in 1956) cheerily received his polio vaccine on camera to spread public awareness.

With the polio threat reduced, the March of Dimes turned its attention to preventing birth defects and reducing infant mortality. Today, the March of Dimes is overwhelmingly known for its work on infant health, though it all started with FDR's crusade to fight polio.

(Note: there are still three countries where polio is endemic, so the fight against polio goes on.)