You might know that vaccines are created by using knocked-out pathogen that can’t make you sick anymore, but can force your immune system to up the shields on your body’s defenses. But do you know where the word “vaccine” comes from, what “ring immunity” means, or how old the oldest computer virus is?

How did a cow virus help us fight chickenpox?

The term to vaccinate has been invented by Doctor Edward Jenner 250 years ago! He realized the milkmaids who were exposed to cowpox would not fall ill from chickenpox even after exposure to the disease. The cowpox virus (Variolae vaccinae) lent its name to the vaccine. It causes a much milder infection than chickenpox which at the time would infect more than half of the population, and kill as many as 20% of the infected individuals.

At the time this was happening, doctors were already experimenting with taking samples from an infected human and introducing them to a healthy human (a process called variolation), but that backfired more often than not, causing full blown infections rather than the mild gently introduction to the pathogen that the doctors were aiming at. By using a virus from the same family, but with little effect on humans, Jenner discovered that cross-reaction can be used as much safer way to immunize people. Today he is considered the man that saved the most human lives throughout human history all together.

What’s new on the vaccines front?

Talk about vaccines, just last month the World Health Organization announced that a significant progress has been made in the development of reliable Ebola vaccine. During the testing of the new vaccine, more than eleven thousand people were involved and each one of the subjects who received the vaccine were protected by it.

Curiously enough, along with the vaccination itself, the researchers who conducted the study used the same monitoring technique, which was first developed for the eradication of the smallpox – the so-called “ring vaccination”. This means that they also monitor and if necessary vaccinate the people who have been in contact with the sick individual recently. The ring vaccination method is based on the “herd immunity” concept – if you vaccinate the people in close contact with the pathogen, you will protect the whole population from being exposed to the disease and eventually eradicate it.

Vaccination teddy

Can cattle be any more useful than this?

Yes! Cattle and big farm animals like horses are still used today to discover new vaccines for human infectious diseases. In most cases, the animal receives very small doses of the virus so its immune system can start producing antibodies, which are then isolated from the blood and their properties studied closely.

Viruses infect machines too!

Computer viruses use the weaknesses in electronic systems, much like real viruses do to infect and spread in their hosts. The electronic counterpart of the Ebola virus is the so-called ILOVEYOU-virus, which is believed to have caused more than $10 billion in damage when it spread, more than 15 years ago. It was spread by an e-mail attachment masked as a love letter.

It takes some brains to create a virus

While ILOVEYOU is considered still the worst virus to have raided the internet, it’s by a long mile not the first. The grandfather of all computer viruses just turned 31-years-old! “Brain” was released in January 1986 by two computer specialists, who claimed that they developed it as means to protect medical software from copyright infringement. Whether this was true or not, we might never know, but it definitely created a huge market for internet security. Today its value is estimated to be $75billion. It is almost as valuable as the global vaccine market, estimated to grow to the booming $100billion by 2025 (WHO).

While exposure is vital for the development of immunity, it is generally best to stay safe and try to stay protected from viruses of all kinds. Staying away from dodgy websites, vaccinating yourself, firewalls, warm blankets and a cup of tea are usually a good practice to start with.