A Very Short History of Vaccines in America

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March 24, 2015

The battle over whether to enforce vaccination is not new. In fact, it’s older than the United States itself.

In early colonial America, the smallpox virus spread quickly among growing populations, killing as many as half of those who caught it. When one of the earliest forms of immunization — called “inoculation” — was introduced in the West, colonizers fought over whether it was safe.

Their fear was reasonable: The process to inoculate against smallpox in the 1700s was much more harrowing, and less safe, than modern-day vaccination. But the principles are the same, and even back then statistics showed that immunizing communities helped reduce the number of deaths.

Gen. George Washington knew this. The problem for him was that the process to inoculate soldiers would take weeks, and he hesitated to take any troops off the front lines. However, after losing a battle over British-occupied Canada — in part due to an outbreak of smallpox in the camps — Washington made a decision to have his soldiers inoculated. Today, many historians credit the move with helping the Continental Army win the Revolutionary War.

Christopher Woolf, news editor and resident “history guy” at Public Radio International’s The World tells the whole story in the video above.

 


Michelle Mizner

Michelle Mizner, Series Producer & Editor, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@michellemizner

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