Until this past year, I rarely if ever heard a friend or family member mention the word “vaccine” or “vaccine history” or “vaccination” unless in the context of their children’s expected regimen – and that would have been just in passing. But now the terms are part of my every day – no, every hour – lexicon, and I know more about “efficacies,” “side effects” and “cold storage” than I would have ever wanted. And, I am grateful for this knowledge and these “vaccination conversations” because they mean we are on the road to moving past the coronavirus pandemic.
Before I continue, I must pause for one of my favorite things – a definition.
Vaccine: a substance used to stimulate the production of antibodies and provide immunity against one or several diseases, prepared from the causative agent of a disease, its products, or a synthetic substitute, treated to act as an antigen without inducing the disease.
Now, another pause for another favorite thing of mine, which is a bit of history. From the website sciencefriday.com comes this fascinating story of how the word “vaccine,” as well as the process, came to be:
The word vaccine, and vaccination, actually comes from the name for a pox virus—the cowpox virus, vaccinia, to be exact. But why did this wonderful tool of immunization, which constitutes one of the “greatest hits” in the entire history of medicine, get its name from a virus that attacks cows?
The Oxford English Dictionary credits the French for coining the term vaccine in 1800 and vaccination in 1803 (although there are cognates in Italian, vaccine, Portuguese, vacina, and Spanish, vacuna). According to an article in the British Medical Journal, however, the term was used as an adjective in 1799 by British general practitioner Dr. Edward Jenner (and the noun vaccination introduced by his friend Richard Dunning in 1800).
Indeed, when talking about vaccines of any kind, it is essential to start the discussion with the work of Jenner (1749 to 1823), who hailed from Gloucestershire, England. In the late 18th century, while making his rounds, Jenner made a stunning observation: Milkmaids infected with cowpox, which manifested itself as a series of pustules on the hands and forearms, were immune to the smallpox epidemics that regularly attacked the residents of his parish. (Many different animal species have their poxvirus, hence smallpox—variola virus—for humans, cowpox for cows, and so on) … Jenner made history in 1796 when he gave a patient what became known as the first “vaccinia vaccine”—that is, a vaccine made from the cowpox virus. In a manner contemporary readers might find disgusting, the doctor took pus from the cowpox lesions on a milkmaid’s hands and introduced that fluid into a cut he made in the arm of an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps.
So many things to think about after reading this, but I want to focus on the first vaccine ever done – to an eight-year-old boy by cutting him and putting pus from a milkmaid’s hand into his cut. Wow. While it worked then, I’m certainly glad that my recent experience in getting the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine bore no resemblance to that first, incredible inoculation. My experience was impressively efficient, modern, and easy.
I first signed up with the Commonwealth of Virginia, which took about 10 minutes online. About three weeks later, I got a text and an email letting me know that I could schedule an appointment on one of several days at an Arlington County-run location in my area. I clicked the link for the appointment schedule and made one for a convenient time – for me, last Sunday morning. I showed up a few minutes late and had a momentary twinge that I had lost my chance, but they let me in no problem. There was a line outside where a volunteer checked to see if I was on the appointment list. About 15 minutes later, another volunteer checked my ID and asked the general COVID screening questions as well as whether or not I had had any other vaccinations done recently.
I passed the test and they let me into the building where I was then sent to an intake volunteer who soon made it clear that I had not filled out a form required by the CDC, one that was emailed the night before. At that point, I thought it would be several more hours before I got my shot and pulled out my phone to check email and settle in for the long haul. Instead, they whisked me into the tech help area and I quickly entered the information while the tech support volunteer ensured that it had been properly uploaded and received by the CDC – an extra 10 minutes, tops.
My next stop was the actual vaccination area. My healthcare provider was a pharmacist, originally from Ghana. I saw several firefighters and EMTs in the room as well (“thank you” to them all). My vaccinator was awesome – very warm and encouraging. While I had no qualms about getting the vaccine, having had recent forays to South Africa and Brazil and receiving the related inoculations required to travel, the pharmacist’s caring and reassurances were sweet and he also made a pitch for me to visit Ghana at some point (and I just might do that!).
The shot itself was much more tolerable pain-wise than the other vaccines I’ve taken in recent years (yellow fever, malaria, hepatitis, TB). There was practically no pinch. I got my COVID-19 vaccination card and then was led to a seating area where I was asked to stay put for 15 minutes. If I had any unusual symptoms during that time, the volunteer said I should raise my hand. Otherwise, I was told to make my way out once the 15 minutes were up. She also reminded me to take a picture of my vaccination card (good idea!). No issues arose during the 15 minutes and I left! From start to finish, the whole process took one hour. No cows, milkmaids, cuts, or puss involved!
I had heard from friends that, even with the “one and done” shot from J&J, I could still have some side effects later in the day or the day after. My husband had his J&J vaccination several days before and had a little soreness in his arm, but otherwise nothing. I went on my merry way through the rest of the day, but by about 8:00 p.m. I was starting to feel a bit bad. Nothing too major, but I had some chills and low-grade fever, and fatigue. I went to bed early and woke up feeling better, but still had some of the fatigue and inability to focus until Monday evening. After that, I was good to go.
I look forward to April 25 when the vaccine is fully effective, and I take my first work trip of the year. Thank you to Dr. Jenner, the cows, the milkmaids, James Phipps, the J&J researchers and scientists, the taxpayers who funded the research (go us!), the manufacturers, the transportation workers, the IT professionals, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Arlington County, the federal government/CDC, and the many, many healthcare and other volunteers who got me to this point. Vaccinated.