It all began with cowpox. An uncommon disease in cows, the virus jumped to milkmaids and others who worked around cows in the 18th century through contact with sores on the cow. An English doctor, Edward Jenner, heard a rumor of milkmaids boasting about their smooth, unmarred skin.
Milkmaids seemed immune to smallpox, hence their perfect skin. Smallpox often leaves survivors severely disfigured. Smallpox, a nasty human virus, killed millions worldwide in the 18th century, close to 30% of those infected.
Edward Jenner decided to investigate the rumor. He was a curious scientist. Also, what doctor wouldn’t want to cure a disease that kills 30% of your patients?
Huff some scabs or vaccinate.
It was common knowledge at the time that smallpox survivors were immune to contracting the disease again. Variolation, or inoculating non-immune people with smallpox pus or sniffing of dry smallpox scabs, occurred in China and India before it reached Europe in the early 1700s. Fewer people died from smallpox exposure via variolation than from naturally occurring transmission.
Variolation had a few drawbacks, such as causing a local outbreak and killing the patient. Edward Jenner himself underwent variolation as a child and survived.
In 1796, he put the milkmaid boasts to the test by gathering fresh cowpox lesion pus and introducing it under a young boy’s skin. The boy developed a mild case of cowpox and recovered. Jenner waited about three months and exposed the boy to smallpox.
As Jenner suspected, nothing happened. The boy appeared immune to smallpox, just like the milkmaids. Since the Latin word for cow is Vacca, Jenner came up with vaccination as the name for his new procedure.
The Royal Society rejected his first paper on the subject, so he forged ahead with more vaccinations. Seeing the same success, he submitted another more extensive report. This paper convinced a few doctors in London to take up vaccination.
Vaccination rapidly replaced variolation as it rarely killed a patient. The vaccination war on smallpox continued until 1977, and the WHO declared it eradicated in 1980.
Diseases we’ve almost forgotten because of vaccines.
And you think COVID-19 sucks. Meet polio. A virus that comes right for kids, often inducing paralysis, sometimes years after a child recovers.
The polio vaccine means the US hasn’t seen a polio case in over 30 years. Only Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan continue to struggle with the disease.
Let’s talk DTaP, one vaccine that protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough. Tetanus causes lockjaw, and if you’re a boomer, your parents fussed over any wound caused by rusty metal. It’s an excellent way to be infected with tetanus, which can be fatal.
Diphtheria is deadly, as it produces a toxin that causes heart failure and paralysis. This disease kills one in five young children and one in ten adults. Before vaccination became widely available, it generated a 20% kill rate for young kids and older adults.
Anti-Vaxxers, then and now.
It’s not surprising Anti-vaccination leagues sprang up almost at the same time vaccination began. The arguments varied from religious to violation of personal liberty. The clergy considered it “unchristian” because it came from cows.
The mandatory vaccine laws caused the most push back from the populace. People didn’t like being told what they should put in their body or their child’s body. The vaccination debate was and continues to be fueled by the media. First by newspapers in the 19th century and now via social media.
In the late 20th century, the Vaccine debate centered not only on personal liberty but on additives, called adjuvants, to boost vaccine efficacy and preservation. The risk of damage to kids from vaccination took center stage. Several research studies found no link or low risk of health problems.
The controversy continues unabated. Forgotten are the death and suffering around the world before we developed and widely used vaccines. In 1967, smallpox infected over 10 million people, which led to a probable 3 million dead.
Given the outcomes of smallpox, that means another 3 million left blind or severely disfigured in just one year. In 1988, polio paralyzed over 300,000 people around the world. While it’s crucial to improve vaccine safety and monitor adverse reactions, it’s essential to remember a world before vaccinations for such diseases as polio and smallpox.