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Topic section: Vaccination for the nation
Vaccination for the nation

The control of virus-caused disease through vaccines has been extraordinarily successful, occasionally disastrous and enduringly controversial. Modern debates over MMR are only the latest stage of 200 years of disputes.

Picture: 10287516s2.jpg
Smallpox pustule gauge 1870-1930.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Antibiotics do not work against diseases caused by tiny viruses which invade cells. In general, these are controlled by prevention through vaccines. Vaccines can also be used to protect against such bacterial diseases as tuberculosis.

In the early eighteenth century, ‘variolation’ against smallpox was introduced to England from Turkey. At the end of the century Edward Jenner developed the use of the safer cowpox vaccine against smallpox. The French chemist Louis Pasteur developed a systematic method of making vaccines. Before the Second World War vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, cholera and typhoid had been introduced. (The diphtheria vaccine, which was invented in 1892, came into widespread use in the UK in1942.) After the Second World War many other shots were given to children.

The polio vaccine, tested in 1952, made its discoverer, Jonas E Salk, an American hero and it was used in the UK from 1956. The Sabin vaccine, which was taken with sugar, followed soon after. At the time many parents were terrified of what polio could do to children and since the virus spread through water, swimming pools had been especially feared.

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Bottle of Behring’s original tetanus.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Vaccines have been successful in the prevention of many diseases such as smallpox and polio. But the injection of vaccines into healthy children has always been a source of fear and suspicion. E

Deep-rooted fears have been compounded by medical disasters

ven at the beginning of the twentieth century, the playwright George Bernard Shaw was a vehement opponent of smallpox vaccination.

Deep-rooted fears have been compounded by medical disasters. Early in the 1930s the tuberculosis vaccine ‘BCG’ killed many children in the German city of Luebeck. This extreme outcome was the result of bad practice, but this disaster highlighted the generally small but ever-present risk involved in vaccination.

Picture: 10287524s2.jpg
Soloshot syringes,  made for single use only, to help prevent the spread of AIDS, 1994.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Vaccination against pertussis – whooping cough – has been given in the UK since 1957. The disease itself can be fatal and incidence fell radically. Vaccines for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus were combined in the DPT vaccine, but there were reports of brain diseases associated with the vaccine. In 1974, a report of 36 children suffering problems hit the headlines. The government introduced a compensation scheme in 1979, because take-up of the vaccine was very low.

In 1988 the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella was introduced into Britain. At first it was welcomed. In 1998, however, a study which seemed to show that autism could be caused by the vaccine triggered a plunge in the take-up of MMR.

Meanwhile, we do not yet have a vaccine against the most feared viral disease of all: AIDS.

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Topic: The germs strike back
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Germs were once the biggest threat to life. Since the introduction of antibiotics, however, death rates from bacterial diseases have fallen dramatically. You are now twenty times less likely to die from germs than people were in 1937. However the rising number of cases of ‘superbug’ infections shows that the germs are fighting back.  > more

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Topic section: Addiction on prescription
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Mind-altering substances have always been both popular and useful. Unfortunately, many such substances are also addictive. New cures for mental distress have appeared, but these cures may be addictive or have other shortcomings. Can we find mental relief with total confidence?  > more
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