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Immunisation: Part one - the history

Immunisation is one of the safest, most cost-effective public health measures available to us; helping to prevent outbreaks and epidemics of infectious diseases among individuals and the community. It acts to prevent you and your family from many serious diseases that can cause long-term health problems or even kill.

When does immunisation begin?

Newborn babies have a natural immunity to many diseases, obtained from antibodies via their mother’s placenta. This natural protection is known as ‘passive immunity’ and diminishes as children age. Without immunisation, older children are much more vulnerable to serious infections.

How does immunisation work?

Immunisation can be achieved through various techniques, most commonly vaccination. A vaccine (a biological preparation that improves immunity) works by containing a tiny element of the virus or bacteria that causes a disease. When a vaccine is administered, the body's immune system reacts to it and is stimulated to produce antibodies to fight the particular disease. These antibodies are then ready to protect you should you ever come into contact with the same bacteria again. This process is called 'active immunity'.

Herd immunity

Herd immunity describes a form of immunity that occurs when a large proportion of a population have been vaccinated against a particular disease. This slows or prevents further transmission of the disease to unvaccinated individuals, thus helping to protect society as a whole along with vaccinated individuals.

Herd immunity can be used to provide a level of protection to vulnerable subgroups that are unable to be vaccinated, such as organ transplant recipients or those with immune disorders. However, this method is only successful if immunisation rates within a community are high. Difficulties arise when widespread vaccination is not possible or when vaccines are rejected by a part of the population.

The history of immunisation 

The development of vaccinations is one of the greatest breakthroughs in modern medicine, although the process has been studied since the times of ancient Greece. The first European to address the concept of immunity was Greek historian Thucydides, who observed that those who survived the smallpox plague in Athens were protected from re-infection.  

However, it was the work by British physician Edward Jenner in the 1700s that opened the door to immunisation as we know it today when he tested deliberate infection with cowpox as an immunisation for smallpox (the more severe form of the disease). His experiments were so successful that Jenner predicted the eventual eradication of smallpox. It took more than two centuries for his prediction to come true, but his findings had a marked impact on fatality rates and proved to the scientific community that vaccination worked.

By 1853 the English Government passed an act making vaccination compulsory across the United Kingdom. Vaccination spread across the globe and although early attempts were basic, they proved successful. The first vaccination programmes dramatically reduced the number of deaths from disease and were crucial in establishing the concept of preventive public health measures that are still used today.

No other medical intervention or procedure has done more to save lives and improve quality of life over the past 50 years. Because of vaccination, smallpox has been eradicated and polio is heading towards elimination. It is hoped that in the future other diseases such as measles will also be eliminated and with more than 150 new vaccines currently being tested, there will be many more potentially life-saving vaccines in years to come.


In Part 2, Sarah will go through the most common vaccinations provided to children and adults in the UK today and their aims and benefits.  the aim is to assist parents knowledge about these vaccinations and their benefits.This article will be released on 1st February 2011.

About the author

Sarah West is a nutritionist and health writer who graduated from the University of Westminster in 2009 with a Bsc. in Nutritional Therapy. She is a regular feature writer for YourDoc Medical using her degree to research and write on a variety of interesting topics.


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