Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The eradication of smallpox

From The Writers Almanac:

It was on this day in 1796, that Edward Jenner, a doctor, inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a vaccine for smallpox. It was the first safe vaccine ever developed, and it was the first time anyone had successfully prevented the infection of any contagious disease. What made it so remarkable was that it was accomplished before the causes of disease were even understood, decades before anyone even knew about the existence of germs.

Jenner was a country doctor. He studied for a few years in a hospital in London, and learned something about the scientific method. Smallpox at the time was the most devastating disease in the world. It caused boils to break out all over the body, and killed about one in four adults who caught it, and one in every three children. It was so contagious, most people who lived in populous areas caught it at some point in their lives.

There were inoculations for smallpox, but they didn't work very well. People who were inoculated could still pass the disease onto others. Some people who were inoculated developed the disease and died from it.

Jenner knew that milkmaids who worked in his area almost never caught smallpox, and he figured that they had caught cowpox from the udders of cows and that this infection somehow helped them develop an immunity to smallpox.

He took some of the fluid from a cowpox sore and injected it into the arm of an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps who developed a slight headache and lost his appetite but that was all. And six weeks later Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox, and the boy showed no symptoms. He had developed immunity.

At first, the Royal Society of London did not believe Edward Jenner, so he published his ideas about inoculation at his own expense in a book which came out in 1798, and was a huge success. The novelist Jane Austen said in one of her letters that she had been at a dinner party and everyone was talking about the "Jenner pamphlet."

By 1840, the British government passed a law providing all infants with free smallpox vaccinations. It was the first free medical service in the history of the country. And today, so far as we know, smallpox only exists in the freezers of laboratories. The last known natural case occurred in 1977 in Somalia.

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