The importance and history of vaccine cards

While vaccination credentials may seem like a new concept, they actually date back further than you might think

You still need vaccination proof to travel to places like Venezuela or Panama and children need it to attend schools. PHOTO: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

by Amirul Anirban, SFU Student

The long days of quarantine and lockdowns are finally ending, and it is time to get back to our near typical day-to-day life. To help facilitate this return to in-person, all Canadian provincial governments are implementing vaccination proof for specific activities to ensure a safe transition. This proof of vaccination is required for indoor ticketed sporting events, indoor concerts, indoor theatre, restaurants (indoor and patio dining), nightclubs, casinos, movie theatres, and fitness centres/gyms (excluding youth recreational sport), among other venues. 

Vaccine cards, more colloquially known as “vaccine passports,” are for the safety of everyone. But there is a rising concern from certain groups of people who strongly oppose this decision. Whether they identify as anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, or propagandists, all these groups of people have one thing in common: a false ideology that has created tension among the masses. While the conversation about vaccine cards recently began during the COVID-19 crisis, the history of needing proof of vaccination dates back to 1885 when it was introduced by US border officials. Travellers coming to the US did not necessarily need to show any official documents, but needed to be able to prove their immunity status a different way, such as through evidence of a scar.


The History of Vaccination Proof

The first proof of vaccination could either be a document or the scar from the smallpox vaccine. Approximately 5 million people a year died from smallpox and it is estimated that 150–200 million lives have been saved since the creation of the smallpox vaccine. The smallpox vaccine — introduced in the 18th century — was different from modern vaccines. The vaccination was administered by scratching pus on a person’s arm instead of inserting a syringe into the body. The vaccination area would form blisters, scab over, and eventually leave a scar. 

Due to the crude vaccination process of the time, many people risked contracting tetanus or syphilis through the vaccine, and wanted to avoid it by any means possible. Additionally, many anti-vaxxers of the time exaggerated this risk. Initially, people bought fake vaccination certificates or forged the certificates themselves. So, officials around America started to look for the scar from vaccination, which served as the physical form of the vaccination record. Vaccine technology has improved vastly since the 18th century, increasing in safety.

There was also a vaccine card during 1970 where people needed to carry a yellow booklet called the International Certificate of Vaccination (ICV). The certification was required to travel to countries in Asia. Retired microbiologist Gavin Clarke writes the certificate contained ten pages of text which had detailed columns collecting dates, signatures of vaccinators, vaccine origins, code numbers and approved stamps. Without this certificate, people were not allowed in some parts of the world. 

And this is not just ancient history either. People travelling to countries like Venezuela, Congo, and Panama today are required to show their yellow fever vaccine evidence. Schools in Ontario and New Brunswick also require proof of child’s immunization before allowing them to attend classes. Further, Times Magazine explains that many of the states in America during the 19th century adapted compulsory vaccination certificates for employment and social gathering. It is clear the concept of vaccination proof is not new.


So does proof of vaccine work?

Now comes the central burning point, whether vaccine cards are an effective measure for controlling the transmission of COVID-19. Dr. Horacio Bach, an infectious diseases expert at UBC, told Global News, “Proof of vaccination comes with an added insurance and is a good idea.” With the rising threat of the delta variant, the BC vaccine card will surely help control the cases of COVID-19 in a few different ways.

Firstly, it creates an incentive for people to get vaccinated. BC provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said, “Anything that encourages people to get vaccinated is important.” 

City News reports the vaccination certificate aimed to increase immunizations to suppress the fourth wave of COVID-19 in Ontario. According to Ontario health minister Christine Elliott, the number of vaccine bookings “have more than doubled” and they are “already seeing thousand more Ontarians roll up their sleeves” after the announcement of the vaccine card system. A similar situation occurred in Quebec and BC after announcing vaccination proof with these provinces seeing a surge in vaccination appointments after the announcement.

Secondly, history shows us vaccination cards can eradicate epidemics. Such aggressive steps and imperative vaccination campaigns helped essentially eliminate smallpox in the US by the middle of the 20th century. Additionally, the plague has been essentially eradicated for countries in the Global North with the development and distribution of the vaccine. Since then, our vaccines have become safer, more available, and more accessible.

The vaccine card has existed for whenever there was an outbreak. The proof of the vaccination worked effectively to curb down the spread and eradicate the problem. Implementing proof of immunization might seem to infringe the rights and customs of people initially, but it protects the health of a population in the long term. Provinces executing the vaccination proof for the specific activities will diminish the COVID-19 cases and outbreaks. This is why it’s so important the Canadian provincial governments implement the vaccination card for the safety of the masses, especially for those who are unable to get the vaccine due to medical reasons or who could potentially have severe allergic reactions to the vaccine. As a result, we can finally get back to our normal lives, which has been a long time coming.

Leave a Reply