We've all heard the stories that vaccination caused Small Pox to be eradicated from the face of the earth. That the WHO organization declared it gone in 1980. But why was this disease in America in the first place? Why was George Washington in such a hurry to get his troops vaccinated against this disease when there was a good chance they might not survive the procedure? Lets take a look behind the scenes by going back 200 BC & then coming forward to the Revolutionary War.
Inoculation originated in China or India in 200 BC. A Buddhist nun practiced vaccination around 1022-1063 AD. She ground up scabs from Small Pox patients & then blew the powder into the nostrils of a person in hopes that this would vaccinate the person against this dreaded disease that would leave people horribly scarred & disfigured.
The origins of small pox is thought to be in Africa which then spread to India & China thousands of years ago. The first recorded small pox outbreak was in 1350 during the Egyptian-Hittite war. Epidemics occurred in the North American colonies during the 17th & 18th centuries. During one time frame, Small Pox was a major disease in every country except for Australia & a few isolated islands.
In the late 1700's, the idea of vaccination was new & untested.
The concept of immunization received a big boost in 1796 from a Dr. Edward Jenner after he inoculated a young boy in England. Jenner would take pus from a sick cow, then using a lancet, he would cut wounds into an arm of a patient & then rub the pus into the person to try to immunize them against smallpox by infecting them with cowpox which is similar to smallpox. The patient was then exposed to small pox 6 weeks later, the person didn't get sick.
In Chapter 6, we heard about that the soldiers were inoculated against small pox & if they survived the procedure, they would be put into battle. I wonder how many in the class knew what this meant? And why was there a rush to inoculate the troops all of a sudden against small pox. How did Small Pox get here when it was only found in Africa, China & India? After doing some research, I came across some disturbing finds.
The British used small pox during the French-Indian War in 1763 to gain the upper hand in the war. The British then was vaccinating civilians & then sending them out among the troops. When a person was vaccinated against Small Pox, they were contagious for 2 weeks. This is common knowledge to this day as our military troops are vaccinated against Small Pox but are told to stay away from their families for 2 weeks so that they don't infect anyone. When a person is given the Flu Mist, they are communicable for 3 weeks. We have to wonder why is the government giving vaccines to people when they know they can spread the disease for a period of time afterward?
The risks from being vaccinated against Small Pox were great. When you got sick right after being vaccinated, you got a fever, you could be sick for up to 2 weeks & contagious for 2-3 weeks. The military usually said a 2nd round of vaccination was necessary, so the troops had to go thru the sickness a 2nd time. This is why it is said in the book, IF the troops survived the vaccination they would be put into battle. Vaccination wasn't mandatory but it was highly recommended since Small Pox was so rampant at the time & the fatality rate was high.
The troops were vaccinated for 2 reason. The first reason was that soldiers could easily contract small pox from each other & from the civilians they were among. The second reason was that the British used Small Pox as a weapon during the French Indian war in 1763.
A letter from British Commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst said, “Couldn't it be contrived so send Small Pox to the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must use every strategy to reduce their numbers.”
In the Book, Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn, pointed out that “130,000 Americans lost their lives to Small Pox.”
During the great epidemic of Smallpox in 1721, about half of the 12,000 residents in Boston came down sick with Small Pox. The fatality rate was 14%. The fatality rate among vaccinated individuals was 2%.
Washington was aware of what the British had done in 1763, announced that all letters from Boston had to be dipped in vinegar to kill any Small Pox germs that were on the letters.
The Pennsylvania Gazette published this statement, “Lord Cornwallis' attempt to spread Small Pox among the citizens of York must render him contemptible in the eyes of every civilized nation.”
Depending how virulent the Small Pox strain was, the death rate could be anywhere from 25-40%. There was a childhood version of small pox that wasn't as deadly but provided life long immunity against Small Pox. This version of Small Pox was only seen in Europe. It never made its way to the Americas.
Some of the reasons why death from small pox among the soldiers was so high was the sick & healthy fought side by side. Conditions were so bad that a barn was converted to hospital. One soldier said that he saw inch long maggots crawl out of fellow soldiers ear one morning. Many soldiers suffered from dysentery. Finally it was heroic medicine that the soldiers didn't need that really led them downhill quickly, being bled & poisoned.
It was led to believe that if you cut a person & drained some of their blood, that this would cure them of their sickness. But it wasn't known back then that a person could die from having so much blood drained from them. Since sanitary conditions were so horrible back then, I can imagine that infections were high too since amputations were a common occurrence when a soldier was injured on the battlefield. Doctors used a form of mercury to try to cure sickness. Mercury is a neurotoxin & in high dosages can impair brain function. When George Washington was on his death bed, his doctors were treating him with blood letting & mercury to try to cure his sore throat. But in actuality he probably died from either blood loss or mercury poisoning.
Morris Bealle, author of the Drug Story wrote this about the Small Pox death rate. For children under the age of 5, it was 75 kids for every 100 kids infected. By the 1800s, that number was reduced to 41 & by 1914 that number was reduced to 14. Thanks to better sanitation. We learned in the book that poor people lived in unsanitary conditions. That sewage ran in the streets, many lived with 2-6 families in one home. Whereas the rich had running water & could get away from the heat.
That is history of Small Pox in a nutshell. Most of the history of this disease lies in England & Europe goes back centuries. This disease now lies dormant in a vial in a few labs around the country. The DNA has been tested & it is different from the Small Pox that killed off so many thousands of people in the late 1700 & 1800s. It doesn't resemble the disease that was called cowpox, monkey pox or camel pox. Many labs don't even know what they have.
I shudder to think that virus will come & kill so many again if it falls into the wrong hands again......
History of Vaccines
How Smallpox Inoculations Helped Win the American Revolution
The History of Smallpox
Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and Vaccination
The History of Medicine - The Revolutionary War