A History of Herd Immunity: What You Need to Know

While the world was in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, the anti-vax community ramped things up several notches: protests, anti-lockdown demonstrations, and all kinds of wacko conspiracies abounded. In the face of a deadly disease, several hundred people believed that their right not to immunize themselves had precedent over stemming the spread of said disease. Fortunately, this perception was repeatedly dismissed, leaving many anti-vaxxers wondering “Why should a government have the ability to tell me what to do with my body?”

This brings us to “herd immunity.” People who spend a large time in a community atmosphere such as students of online Masters of School Counseling will understand how important herd immunity is to a community, and many people developed an understanding of it during the height of the COVID pandemic. Today, we’re taking a look at herd immunity, what it is, how it was discovered, and why it is important.

The Discovery of Herd Immunity

The first mention of so-called “herd immunity” in medical history appears in the early 1900s. In the 1910s, the USA was plagued by a rash of spontaneous and sudden cattle and sheep miscarriages, then referred to as “contagious abortions.” Whatever was causing these miscarriages spread rapidly among the livestock populations of the USA, and threatened to drastically impact the farming industry, and the availability of meat. Initially, the condition was “treated” by either killing or selling affected animals, however, it was revealed that this (perhaps obviously by today’s standards) was not the right approach. 

The revelation came from two veterinarians, namely George Potter and Adolph Eicchorn, who envisioned the concept of “herd immunity” and published their research on the concept in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1916. In 1918, Potter expanded on the herd immunity concept, writing: 

“Abortion disease may be likened to a fire, which, if new fuel is not constantly added, soon dies down. Herd immunity is developed, therefore, by retaining the immune cows, raising the calves, and avoiding the introduction of foreign cattle.”

The concept continued to permeate veterinary science through WW1 where it was used to cultivate cattle populations to provide rations for soldiers. It seems to have first migrated to the realm of human medical science in 1922, when British bacteriologist William Whiteman Carlton Topley noted that the herd immunity principle worked in stemming the tide of bacterial infections in mice and that the concept could also work in human children.

In 1923, Topley got his chance to experiment with his findings. During this year, Professor of Pathology Sheldon Dudley noted a diphtheria epidemic at the Royal Hospital School in Greenwich. The epidemic provided the perfect testing ground for herd immunity’s effectiveness on humans. The school provided laboratory conditions and a control group of healthy students to provide the requisite scientific rigour. The experiments were a success, and as the landscape of medicine changed to include widespread immunisation practices, herd immunity has been a key part of social health ever since.

A History of Herd Immunity: What You Need to Know

What is Herd Immunity?

The concept is pretty easy to understand, as we use it in several other areas of our lives already.

Let’s say that your workplace has an email server. It’s a fairly common occurrence in most office jobs. Now, let’s imagine further that a rather annoying spam email is making its way around the office, but there is a setting on your computer that turns off the ability for your computer to receive, visualize, and send spam to other emails. Now, if another worker receives an email with spam, they know who it came from, can more easily trace the spread of the spam, and slowly stop the spam from being circulated in the office. It will still take time for the email to stop completely, and indeed it may never happen – but when it does it will be a rare occurrence and easy to handle.

This is herd immunity placed in a technological metaphor. Viruses transmit from person to person much in the same way a spam email makes its way from account to account. When someone is vaccinated or practices proper hygiene, it impedes the flow of the virus in two ways:

  1. It reduces the chances of that person becoming a carrier of the virus and becoming sick themselves.
  2. It reduces the chances of that person as a potential source of the virus to other people.

When you vaccinate yourself and your family, you’re not just looking after your wellbeing, but the wellbeing of others. When the chances you having a virus are diminished, that means there are fewer chances of someone catching the virus from you.  

Herd immunity has been theorized, tested, researched, and tested again, and been found to be one of the most effective methods of restricting the spread of viruses and illnesses. As part of sharing the world with people who may have compromised immune systems, or chronic illnesses that impede their ability to be vaccinated, making sure that you are contributing to your community’s herd immunity is not just a safe practice, it’s a social and moral obligation.

A History of Herd Immunity: What You Need to Know

Dr. Oche Otorkpa PG Cert, MPH, PhD

Dr. Oche is a seasoned Public Health specialist who holds a post graduate certificate in Pharmacology and Therapeutics, an MPH, and a PhD both from Texila American University. He is a member of the International Society of Substance Use Professionals and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK. He authored two books: "The Unseen Terrorist," published by AuthorHouse UK, and "The Night Before I Killed Addiction."
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