Prior to immunization, one of the popular remedies for smallpox was a pill containing deer dung and turpentine. This is the type of thing that formed much of the medical practice for millennia prior to modern medicine.
“When European colonizers brought smallpox to the Americas in the 17th century, it became an epidemic, killing three out of every 10 people who got it” (“Six Infectious Diseases,” Business Insider, June 14, 2019).
Smallpox is a frightful, disfiguring disease, with a fatality rate of about 30%, higher among babies. It is a highly-contagious, airborne-transmitted virus. It begins with flu-like symptoms, fever, muscle pain, fatigue, headache, back pain, nausea, vomiting, followed by lesions in the mouth, tongue, and throat, then a rash that begins on the forehead and face and spreads quickly to the whole body, turning into ugly fluid-filled pox sores that scab over and leave deep, pitted scars. “In 18th-century Europe, it is estimated that 400,000 people per year died from the disease, and one-third of the cases resulted in blindness” (“Smallpox,” WHO Factsheet). In the 20th century, smallpox killed up to 300 million people (Koprowski, Microbe Hunters, Then and Now).
As recently as 1967, there were an estimated 15 million smallpox cases annually with 500,000 deaths.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), one of the prominent preachers of the First Great Awakening in the early 18th century and author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” died at age 54 of smallpox. He contracted it through an inoculation technique (insufflation or variolation) that was a precursor to smallpox vaccine. It was possibly invented in China in the 16th century, and was practiced in Turkey, Persia, and Africa.
“Smallpox is hideous and excruciating, as the pox bubble up, lifting off bloody sheets of crusty skin, torturing the sufferer in his bed, every movement a dagger slice of pain. Worse for Edwards, the pox encrusted the roof of his mouth and throat so thickly he couldn’t speak above a whisper, and eating or drinking was impossible” (John Sedgwick, War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation, pp. 9).
President Abraham Lincoln had a mild case of smallpox in 1863, but his valet caught it and died.
Evangelist Gypsy Smith’s mother died of smallpox in 1865.
Edward Jenner’s 1796 smallpox vaccine was the first vaccine against a contagious disease.
A more effective and stable freeze-dried smallpox vaccine was developed in the 1950s by Leslie Collier of the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine.
The invention of the bifurcated needle by Benjamin Rubin in the 1960s was another major improvement in smallpox vaccination. It holds one dose of freeze-dried vaccine, requires one-fourth the amount of vaccine, is easy to use, cheap to produce, and can be re-used after sterilization.
The Lister vaccine administered with the Rubin bifurcated needle was used by the WHO Smallpox Eradication Campaign to perform 200 million vaccinations per year beginning in the late 1960s.
Through this unprecedented global vaccination effort, naturally occurring smallpox has been eradicated. By 1977, it was eradicated globally. The last outbreak was in Somalia.
All remaining known stocks of smallpox vaccine are kept by the CDC in the U.S. and by the State Research Center of Virology in Russia.
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