As winter worsens and flu season hits its stride, nothing seems more relevant to discuss than the history of the lifesaving influenza vaccine. The 20th century was responsible for a number of remarkable scientific discoveries and achievements; along with the advent of a new treatments and medications came the implementation of the flu shot, a revolutionary new development that would go on to save countless lives in the coming decades.
1918 Flu Pandemic
In 1918, an influenza pandemic wiped out an estimated 50 million people — nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, and more than three times as many as had been killed in World War I.
1930s Influenza Discovery
The flu virus is isolated for the very first time by Wilson Smith, Christopher Andrewes, and Patrick Laidlaw. They’d go on to publish their findings, setting the stage for the development of a vaccine.
1940s Vaccine Creation
An estimated 1 in 65 soldiers died from the flu during the 1918 pandemic, so the U.S. government began testing inactivated (“dead”) versions of the virus in the hopes of inoculating the troops of World War II.
As knowledge grew and evolved, future vaccine development was molded: scientists discovered that virus strains can mutate over the course of seasons, and that protection from some strains doesn’t guarantee protection from others. This led to the World Health Organization (WHO) instituting a more rigorous process for targeting strains that affect the most people.
Now, we have access to technology that allows us to create recombinant and multi-strained vaccines; the former was produced for the first time in 2013, and — although most current strains are trivalent (use three strains), a quadrivalent vaccine was developed in 2012. As long as people keep getting their yearly flu shots, we can avoid another devastating pandemic.