jenner and the eradication of smallpox
Vaccination in Britain
In 1801 Edward Jenner issued a pamphlet which ended with these prophetic words: '... the annihilation of the Small Pox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice'. It was to take nearly 180 years to fulfil this prediction.
Compulsory vaccination was introduced into Britain in 1853, long after countries such as Bavaria (1807), Denmark (1810) and Prussia (1835).
In continental Europe the vaccine was prepared in large quantities by growing the virus on calf skin. However, in Britain Edward Jenner's original technique of arm-to-arm transfer was still used until 1898. Despite compulsory vaccination, outbreaks continued to occur in Britain right up to the 1960s, because the virus was imported by unsuspecting travellers from countries where it was still endemic.
In 1971 compulsory vaccination at last ended in Britain, though it had not been enforced for some time, except for those travelling abroad.
The World Health Organization's Smallpox Eradication Campaign
In 1967 the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its campaign to eradicate smallpox worldwide. They estimated at that time that there were still up to 15 million cases of smallpox each year. The biggest problem areas were South America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Their first approach was to vaccinate every person in the areas at risk. Teams of vaccinators from all over the world journeyed to the remotest of communities.
The last case of smallpox in South America was reported in 1971. As the number of cases in other countries dropped the medical teams were able to change their tactics. They travelled around looking for smallpox outbreaks. They even resorted to putting up posters advertising rewards for people who reported cases of smallpox. Once found, a smallpox sufferer was isolated at home with his family. They and all surrounding families were then vaccinated.
The Last Case of Naturally Occurring Smallpox.
The last case of smallpox in India occurred in 1975, but the disease persisted in Ethiopia and surrounding regions of Africa. In 1977 a hospital worker who had nursed a family in a Somali hospital became ill. Ali Maow Maalim had never himself been vaccinated! WHO officials literally sat on his doorstep, letting no one out or in until the last scab had fallen off his last pock. He recovered. He was the last person on Earth to catch smallpox by natural transmission.
Near the beginning of the WHO campaign the invention of a vaccination gun that fired a jet of vaccine using compressed air was heralded as a breakthrough, cutting out the need for needle replacement and sterilisation. It was soon realised however that it required too much maintenance in the desert dusts. The disposable 'bifurcated needle' was adopted instead, its narrow, flattened forked end drawing up just enough vaccine by capillary action. This was then jabbed repeatedly into the skin, to give a painless vaccination.
Smallpox is Dead!
After an anxious period of watching for new cases, in 1980 the WHO formally declared: "Smallpox is Dead!" The most feared disease of all time had been eradicated, fulfilling the prediction that Edward Jenner had made in 1801. It has been estimated that the task he started has led to the saving of more human lives than the work of any other person.
The last remaining specimens of the smallpox virus are now held in just two laboratories, in Siberia and the USA. The samples, used for research, are afforded higher security than a nuclear bomb. One day they too will be destroyed. Smallpox will have become the first major infectious disease to be wiped from the face of the Earth.
Edward Jenner's Inquiry can be identified as the origin of one of the most important branches of modern medicine. All that is known about disease prevention by vaccination, our understanding of allergy, autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis), transplantation and AIDS follows from this fundamental work by Edward Jenner.
Jenner is acknowledged as the Father of Immunology - the science of our body's defence against invading bugs and chemicals.
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