A free Smallpox vaccination clinic - 1905
Source: www.history.com

The terms 'virus', 'vaccine', and the like have become parts of mainstream conversation in the last two years. All of us have done our research on the same. It would be interesting to know how the concept of vaccination came into existence and its evolution to the 'life saviour'. Also, how did the world stand together to eradicate the much-feared disease at that time, Smallpox, to make our existence more accessible and safer?

  • The beginning of Smallpox:

Smallpox is one of the world's oldest diseases; its evidence is found in 3000-year-old Egyptian mummies. It was the cause of death of 300 million people in the 20th century alone. Three people died of every ten people who contracted it; it is believed to have originated around 10,000 years ago in Central Africa and then soon covered the whole continent. Its significant and immediate spread was from Egypt in the Hittite war after which, most of the Hittetian Army got infected. Egypt merchants travelled to different countries where they became carriers of the disease. Soon due to the crusades, trade, and war, it engulfed the whole world, taking deep roots, especially in Southeast Asia.

  • Early measures:

Smallpox was an airborne virus that attacked the skin cells, bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes. The symptoms were characteristic, vomiting, fever, and rashes over the body. They usually manifest in the person in a day or two, but controlling transmission was complicated since it spread through the air. So a dire need of eliminating it was felt, and various positions and healers devised their own local ways of ameliorating its effects and containing it. The face mask was also used for the purpose. It is debatable who began using it to prevent Smallpox, but in general, healthcare workers were born in the 18th century. A daily accessory of today The mask was used in our country as early as 500 BC by Jain monks to avoid breathing in insects as part of practicing non-violence. In Europe, Leonardo da Vinci advised using masks to protect against toxic agents of warfare and prevent marble dust from entering the lungs in the 16th century.

  • A ray of hope - Variolation:

China devised the first effective treatment for preventing Smallpox. There lived a Buddhist nun, O Mei Shan, in the early 15 century in the Southern Sichuan region who found it. She observed that anyone who got Smallpox once and survived never contacted it again. She collected scabs of Smallpox, ground it to a fine powder and blew it through the nose of healthy people. Now, these people got a mild form of the same smallpox virus they soon recovered, and it was guaranteed that these people would not get affected by Smallpox again. This method was called variolation, regarded as a precursor of vaccination.

  • Consequences of variolation:

It was effective, but it proved fatal since it used the same virus, those with low immunity. Around 3% of people died after variolation, which is lower than 30% of Smallpox but still a concerning statistic. Even though the method had this drawback, it was popular in western countries too between the 16th and 17th centuries. The doctors kept a powdered form of smallpox cab with them and made a few scratches on the patient's arm with a needle; then, they rubbed the powder on it. Doctors did not suggest the process for children and those who had respiratory issues or those who were ill at the moment as they had low immunity. So the terror of Smallpox had subsided a bit, but the fierce still remained as there was no foolproof resistance against it which would work for everyone.

  • The solution - vaccination:

In the 1760s, 18 age Edward Jenner was working as an apprentice for a country surgeon in Sodbury, near Bristol in England. There he heard a milkmaid who was affected by cowpox saying that she would never get infected by Smallpox. The conversation piqued his interest,

and he observed that she was right. Cowpox was a viral skin infection caused by the cowpox virus; its symptoms were similar to that of Smallpox. The difference was that it was relatively mild, and the symptoms receded on their own; the scabs were also temporary. General concluded that cowpox and smallpox virus belongs to the same category, so inoculation could be done using this cowpox virus in place of the smallpox virus. This revolutionary thought changed the medical world. He put the powdered scab of cowpox on his Gardner's son, who was eight years old. The child experienced the symptoms and discomfort for a while, but he was soon healthy. Jenner later put the powdered smallpox virus scab on him, and it had no effect on the child hence the method was tested successfully. The medical fraternity debated and discussed it, and in 1789 vaccination was declared legal while variolation was banned in Europe.

  • Efforts to eradicate Smallpox:

The next step was to popularise it not only in Europe but the rest of the world. Healthcare professionals worked day night to vaccinate people. In India, one of the last centres of the disease, workers visited every home to gather details about any person who has Smallpox and to vaccinate the population. In 1975 Rahima Banu, a 3-year-old girl from Bangladesh was the last person to Naturally contract a variola major. In 1978 Janet Parker was the last person to die of Smallpox. Due to the relentless and brave efforts of the world, countries leaving their rivalry behind to strive for the betterment of Humanity, The actions of the medical fraternity finally eradicated smallpox. Almost two centuries after Jenner hoped that vaccination could annihilate Smallpox, the 33rd World Health Assembly declared the world free of Smallpox on May 8, 1980.

Several physical regions also existed as for why it could be readily created in some other viruses could not. Firstly Smallpox needed a human to human transmission to propagate, and unlike evolution and plague, which could live in animals, tetanus virus can even live in the soil. Secondly, Smallpox had a characteristic rash, so it was quickly recognised, and it had a short incubation time, unlike diseases like AIDS. As Medical Sciences continuously advance, it would not be Panglossian to hope that we will soon figure out how to eradicate other diseases.

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(With references from multiple media outlets)