The Science Behind Vaccinations 

Zoe Charles

News Editor

Vaccines have been widely regarded since their use first in the late 1700s. According to, “On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with matter from a cowpox sore on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes. Phipps suffered a local reaction and felt poorly for several days but made a full recovery. In July of 1796, Jenner inoculated Phipps with matter taken from a fresh human smallpox sore, as if he were variolating the boy, in an attempt to challenge the protection from cowpox. Phipps remained healthy. Jenner next demonstrated that cowpox matter transferred in a human chain, from one person to the next, provided protection from smallpox.” By 1802, the vaccine had been verified by the state of Massachusetts. 

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Thanks to the success of vaccination, the last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949. In 1980, the World Health Assembly declared smallpox eradicated (eliminated), and no cases of naturally occurring smallpox have happened since.” 

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases website, “Vaccines are among the most significant achievements in public health. Since 1924, childhood vaccinations have prevented more than 100 million cases of serious disease.” 

While the science behind vaccine success is recognized by individuals, the scientific process of how vaccines work can provide some trouble for layman understanding. 

According to Northwestern Medical’s website, “A healthy immune system helps protect you from getting sick by identifying and destroying intruders in your body, like bacteria and viruses. Vaccines teach your body how to fight these intruders so that when they get into your body, your immune system can fight them without making you sick.” 

The website continued, “‘Vaccines are like a training course for the immune system,’ says Northwestern Medicine Allergist and Immunologist Deeba Masood, MD. ‘They prepare the body to fight disease without exposing it to disease symptoms.’ [. . . ] Vaccines prevent an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths per year.” 

Not only are vaccines required to be scientifically sound, they also go through strenuous testing before being released to the public. In the United States, testing is conducted through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, more commonly known by its acronym FDA. 

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases website, “After a vaccine is licensed, FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work with healthcare professionals to monitor the safety of vaccines, including any adverse events, especially rare events not identified in pre-licensure study trials. There are four systems in place in the US to monitor the safety of vaccines after they are licensed and used among the public. These systems can monitor known side effects and detect rare side effects that may not have been identified during clinical trials.” 

It is important to note that while rare adverse events do happen, they are often far less severe than what could be caused if the virus itself were incurred and are, as previously mentioned, very rare. 

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases website, “Vaccine-preventable infections can be deadly. Every year in the US, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 50,000 adults died from vaccine-preventable diseases. [. . .] The US has a robust approval process to ensure that all licensed vaccines are safe. Potential side effects associated with vaccines are uncommon and much less severe than the diseases they prevent. [. . .] Vaccines contain either killed or weakened viruses, making it impossible to get the disease from the vaccine.” 

When it comes to vaccine misinformation, there is the infamous claim that vaccines can cause autism as well as other developmental disorders. That claim has been completely disproven by scientists. 

According to, “The widespread fear that vaccines increase risk of autism originated with a 1997 study published by Andrew Wakefield, a British surgeon. The article was published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, suggesting that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine was increasing autism in British children. [. . .] The paper has since been completely discredited due to serious procedural errors, undisclosed financial conflicts of interest, and ethical violations. Andrew Wakefield lost his medical license and the paper was retracted from The Lancet.” 

The website continues, “[n]onetheless, the hypothesis was taken seriously, and several other major studies were conducted. None of them found a link between any vaccine and the likelihood of developing autism.” 

It is also important to note that modern vaccines are very safe from a physical standard as well. 

According to, “As for immediate danger from vaccines, in the form of allergic reactions or severe side effects, the incidence of death is so rare they can’t even truly be calculated. For example, only one death was reported to the CDC between 1990 and 1992 that was attributable to a vaccine. The overall incidence rate of severe allergic reaction to vaccines is usually placed around one case for every one or two million injections.[. . .] Despite parent concerns, children have been successfully vaccinated for decades. In fact, there has never been a single credible study linking vaccines to long term health conditions.” also takes in the consideration of natural immunity. The website states: “In some cases, natural immunity — meaning actually catching a disease and getting sick– results in a stronger immunity to the disease than a vaccination. However, the dangers of this approach far outweigh the relative benefits. If you wanted to gain immunity to measles, for example, by contracting the disease, you would face a 1 in 500 chance of death from your symptoms. In contrast, the number of people who have had severe allergic reactions from an MMR vaccine is less than one-in-one million.” 

Vaccines can also help with the idea of herd immunity. According to Northwestern Medical’s website, “If only a few people get vaccinated measles can spread to up to 90% of the population. If 92% to 94% of the population gets vaccinated against measles the virus has nowhere to go and will not spread to the unprotected 6% to 8%.” This fact is essential for the small part of the population that cannot receive most vaccines due to specialized health reasons. 

Perhaps the most recent attention of vaccines comes in the form of the Covid-19 vaccinations. 

The Pfizer and Moderna shots work through the use of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a more traditional disabled adenovirus. 

The mRNA technology yields strong results in the field of use. According to Northwestern Medical, “When injected, mRNA vaccines teach your cells to make a piece of a protein that is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

  • When this protein appears on the surface of a cell, your immune system does not recognize it. 
  • Your system then begins building an immune response by making antibodies to destroy the intruder. 
  • This process is the same as what would happen if you were infected with the virus itself. 
  • Once the “training” is complete, your immune system will know how to fight the virus that causes COVID-19 if you are exposed to it in the future. 

Once your cells make the protein, they destroy the mRNA instructions. It is important to note that these vaccines do not affect your cells’ DNA.” 

While vaccines are effective, the Delta variant has posed the threat of “breakthrough cases” of vaccinated peoples. 

According to the CDC, “COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing infection, serious illness, and death. Most people who get COVID-19 are unvaccinated. However, since vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing infection, some people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19. An infection of a fully vaccinated person is referred to as a “breakthrough infection.” 

  • Breakthrough infections are expected. COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing most infections. However, like most vaccines, they are not 100% effective. 
  • Fully vaccinated people with a breakthrough infection are less likely to develop serious illness than those who are unvaccinated and get COVID-19. 
  • Even when fully vaccinated people develop symptoms, they tend to be less severe symptoms than in unvaccinated people. This means they are much less likely to be hospitalized or die than people who are not vaccinated. 
  • People who get vaccine breakthrough infections can be contagious.” 

The Pfizer vaccine was approved by the FDA on August 23, 2021. Tune in to The Bison in two weeks for more information about vaccine effects on campus. 

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