How the Vaccine Schedule in the U.S. Has Evolved Since the 1950s (Part I)

By On March 31, 2017

If you’re in your 50s or younger, then you have grown up in the era of mass vaccinations. Since the 1950s, the number of recommended and required vaccine shots has gone up by approximately 414%. Currently, there are dozens of shots per year on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) vaccine schedule – not just for children but for adults as well.

But how did the current CDC vaccine schedule come into existence in the first place? Here is a basic rundown of how U.S. vaccine policy has developed over the past 60 years.

Vaccines in the 1960s: Laying the Groundwork for Mass Vaccine Campaigns

Prior to the early 1960s, there was no formal nationwide vaccination program for Americans. Instead, vaccines were given mostly through private practice doctors. Vaccinations were usually paid for out of pocket, although some state and local governments provided block grants for local immunization programs.

All that began to change in 1962, when the Vaccination Assistance Act (VAA) went into effect. The VAA was significant in two ways. First, it gave the CDC the ability to initiate mass national vaccination campaigns. Secondly, it laid the foundation for on-going federal financial support to states and local governments as well as direct support, such as CDC Health Workers and actual vaccines.

“Booster shots” for vaccinations were not as common prior to the late 1960s as well. For example, as a child in the early to mid-1960s, you more than likely received a “whole-cell” vaccine dose of pertussis within the DTP (now called DTaP) multiple vaccine, or as a single shot. This extra-strength immunization contained the entire inactivated bacterium.

Beginning in the 1970s, the dosages for pertussis and other diseases were weakened (meaning they contained less bacterium). This was done for safety reasons according to the CDC. The practice of administering several booster shots throughout a child’s life became common practice from about the mid-1970s onwards.

If you grew up in the 1960s, you may still recall your mom trotting you over to the local health clinic to get your “doctor-recommended” round of shots. According to CDC records, in 1961, those recommendations looked like this:

– DTP. This was one of the first combination vaccines and included diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (aka whooping cough). Eventually, as immunization dosing amounts were tweaked, a series of 3-4 booster shot was recommended (see 1970s);

– Poliomyelitis (polio). The polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s and was on the vaccination schedule in the 1960s as a single shot (a different version of the polio vaccine is still offered today). It is estimated that approximately 100 million individuals received the polio vaccine between the late 1950s and early 1960s.

– Smallpox. Smallpox outbreaks were dangerous in previous years, but this disease wasn’t as much of a concern in the 1960s. Cases still appeared, however, especially outside of the United States, so a single shot smallpox vaccine was recommended during this decade. According to the World Health Organization, the last known case of smallpox was reported in 1977.

Vaccines in the 1970s: An Era of Transparency?

If you grew up in the 1970s, you may have had roughly 12-14 different kinds of shots throughout your early childhood. Not including the flu shot, your “recommended” childhood immunization schedule in 1974 might have looked like this:

– Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (DTP). The initial shot was given at 2 months and 3-4 subsequent boosters were given over the course of the next 4 to 6 years;

– Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV). An upgraded vaccine for polio was given in approximately 4 shots between 6 months and 6 years of age.

– Measles, Mumps, and Rubella. In 1974, these were given as single, individual shots which were staggered between 1 to 12 years of age (measles was usually administered at around 12 months, with the other two staggered afterwards, between 1 to 12 years of age). The well-known and controversial MMR combo vaccine was actually developed in the early 1970s, but vaccines for these three diseases were still given in single doses through mid-decade.

In the 1970s, the CDC and other public agencies began to establish bureaucratic ways to address some of the adverse effects that had come down the pipeline in previous decades. Regarding polio in particular, some individuals developed paralysis after being given the vaccine in the 1960s. There had also been some consumer concern regarding the newly-established flu vaccines as well as side effects from earlier versions of smallpox immunizations.

The CDC’s Monitoring System for Adverse Events Following Immunization (MSAEFI), which was established in 1976, was the forerunner of the current VAERS program. VAERS stands for Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

During this time, responsibility for liability caused by adverse side effects to vaccines also switched from vaccine manufacturers to the U.S. government. As a result, the government developed Vaccine Information Statements that are available today for parents and other vaccine users. (Access them HERE.)

Finally, 1976 also saw the first mass roll-out of a flu vaccine, the H1N1 (i.e. swine flu) immunization.

Vaccines in the 1980s: MMR In Full Swing

Because of the switch of control regarding vaccine safety regulations as well as the creation of the CDC’s MSAEFI program, lawsuits against DTP vaccine manufacturers in particular rose dramatically in the early 1980s. Many parents alleged cases of brain damage and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) as a result of the DTP vaccine.

By the mid-1980s, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) created a “no-fault” compensation program for individuals who had been injured from universally-recommended vaccines. The Act also formerly created several other programs and offices, including VAERS, the National Vaccine Program Office, the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, and the Advisory Commission on Childhood Vaccines.

The “Vaccine Court” is a popular term for the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which administers the no-fault system for litigating vaccine injury claims without a sitting jury. Since the development of the NCVIA and its Vaccine Court, initial claims against manufacturers can no longer be filed within normal state or federal courts.

For children of the 80s, the number of vaccines was about the same as in the 1970s. A major change, however, was that now the MMR vaccine, which combined measles, mumps, and rubella into one shot, was in full usage. If you were a baby in the 1980s, you more than likely received an MMR shot at 15 months and again at 18 months of age.

Stau tuned for Part II on The Evolution of The Vaccine Empire…