Immunization entwined in Armed Forces history

  • Published
  • By Estella Holmes, Air Force Materiel Command Public Affairs

National Immunization Awareness Month is an annual observance held in August to emphasize the importance of vaccination to protect the health of people of all ages.

The term immunization is used interchangeably with vaccination, although they are not one in the same. The act of receiving a vaccine into the body produces immunity.

The history of vaccinations in the U.S. portrays an extended effort to leverage research and technology to protect Americans by lowering health risks.

Early inoculations began with tests to protect against smallpox in 1796, followed by the next routinely recommended vaccines that protect against pertussis (1914), diphtheria (1926) and tetanus (1938), according to the Immunization Advisory Center webpage.

George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, prompted by smallpox, is credited for mandating the first military vaccinations of troops in 1777, according to the Military Health System website.

Today, a large percentage of the American population receive vaccinations as children for protection from a specific list of communicable childhood diseases. Measles, mumps, chicken pox and other vaccines are commonly administered during the early years of a child’s life and are credited with providing disease-free, healthful benefits.

Measles complications could include pneumonia, croup, acute brain inflammation/ encephalitis, and corneal ulceration, which could lead to corneal scarring. The goal of vaccinations is to prevent life-altering complications.

Military members receive vaccines when they enter basic training and before deployment to locations outside the U.S. to help protect them from infection.

According to the Military Health System, there are currently several vaccines that are required including polio, the influenza, Measles-Mumps-Rubella, hepatitis A and chickenpox. Additions to the inoculation list of required vaccinations can be made in order to protect military forces against threats both new and old specific to their environment based on the potential of exposure to diseases like that posed by the COVID-19 and related variants.

National Immunization Awareness Month serves as a reminder that throughout history, vaccination has been employed as another weapon to keep military members safe in the hostile environment posed by disease.