MUNDANE MYSTERIES: The Difference Between Vaccination & Immunization

First, let me say that I am in no way a doctor or any other type of medical professional. I’m just a wordsmith who enjoys knowing where the language we use comes from & what it all means. Please direct any actual medical questions you may have to your healthcare provider.

With that said…

Over the past almost 2 years, we’ve heard a lot about vaccinations & immunizations. But aren’t those basically all the same thing? Well…not quite.

First, we need to start with what started it all: inoculate. In the 1400s, “inoculate” meant to graft one plant bud onto a different plant to cultivate a brand new plant. It came from the Latin verb “inoculare”, which meant “to graft or implant”. Inoculare, itself, came from the Latin noun “oculus”, which meant “eye or bud” (think: the eye of a potato).

Over the years, people began using “inoculate” to mean just about anything implantable. So, when British physicians began experimenting with implanting smallpox into non-sick patients in the 1700s, it made sense to call it “inoculation”. (“Variola” being the actual virus that caused smallpox, inoculation was also called “variolation”.)

British doctor Edward Jenner, in the 1790s, theorized that exposure to cowpox could also immunize people against smallpox. Since the virus that caused cowpox was known as vaccinia (“vacca” = Latin for cow), Jenner named the process “vaccination.” So basically, “vaccine” first referred only to cowpox injections that guarded against smallpox.

But then inoculation grew to cover diseases beyond smallpox, so the terms “inoculation” & “vaccination” also expanded. By the early 1900s, people would talk about them in reference to everything from anthrax to hay fever. Since inoculation was originally specific to transferring pathogenic matter through skin lesions (versus injecting it via needle), it’s sometimes still used like that.

Immunization, while frequently used as a synonym, actually refers to what comes after vaccination or inoculation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s the “process by which a person becomes protected against a disease through vaccination.” So basically: vaccination is the process by which you actually receive a vaccine; immunization is the process through which your immune system builds up a resistance & makes you immune to the disease.

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