The A to Z Challenge is on! Hello and welcome to my Main blog. My name is Rose Anderson and I’m a romance novelist. Join me and more than 2279 bloggers and authors as we blog the alphabet throughout the month of April. My daily posts will be mostly history with some science topics here and there. I’ve chosen subjects that tickle my fancy, I hope you will find them interesting too.
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Today’s Calliope’s Writing Tablet post is brought to you by the letter V ~
V for Vaccination
When I was a child growing up in Chicago, I lived in the standard neighborhood with children of all ages inhabiting just about every house on the block. Rare was the household with just one or two kids. Some families there had 8 or more. At night, from one end of the street to the other, we’d run and play tag on the grass or play kick the can between the parked cars. We never had just one set of parents to watch over us. Every mom and dad was on duty as the street lights came on. They’d stand in their small groups sharing their adult conversation with one eye open on the back of their heads. Thinking on those times right now, I must say how strange it was compared to today. There were just so many of us. We were all part of the population explosion that began after WWII and lasted to 1960. Today people call us the Baby Boomers.
Many Boomers can tell you stories related to their measles, mumps, and chickenpox experiences. Childhood disease is a point of commonality we share, just as older relatives shared stories of the polio, whooping cough, and scarlet fever that rolled through their neighborhoods back in the day. In my child-packed neighborhood, when one kid got sick, the rest fell like stacked dominoes.
I remember the Saturday morning my best friend’s brother came knocking on the door to say his sister had come down with mumps. He was there to let us know his mother said I could come over to play. Their family doctor even recommended it. Oddly enough, my parents sent me over there. I was only seven or eight so didn’t grasp the significance of playing with a sick friend. I do now. They wanted me to catch the mumps.
Sending kids for exposure to measles, mumps, and chickenpox wasn’t superstition or hack doctor quackery. It was better to expose a young child to childhood disease rather than have them come down with those diseases as an adult. Mumps could lead to worse things like meningitis in adults or painfully swollen gonads in teens. Back then opinion was mumps caused sterility. Needless to say, I wasn’t the only child sent to play those first two days. In fact, the whole neighborhood came for the mumps in shifts. If I was infected that day, when the mumps came they weren’t noticeable. I don’t recall being sick after and I never had the huge mumpy neck.
Humans have always dealt with microbes. You just have to say bravo to the microbes for being so amazingly adaptive. While the diseases mentioned above have their nasty side-effects, mankind has faced worse.
I could talk about bubonic plague or yellow fever or a host of other infectious diseases. Today I’m talking about vaccination and vaccination as we know it today exists because of smallpox. As microbes that plague humanity goes, smallpox is a unique disease. It’s one of our deadliest communicable diseases. It came in two forms: Variola major and Variola minor. About 30% of people contracting Variola major die within the second week of infection. Most survivors would suffer extensive permanent scarring and deformities of the face. Blindness from corneal scarring was common. Berlin saw a 98% infant mortality in the late 1800’s. It’s estimated that deaths in the 2oth century numbered more than 300 million. Terrible stuff.
I say it’s a unique infectious disease because it’s also the one mankind has triumphed over. Smallpox was eradicated by human intervention — by vaccination. Throughout our history the disease was always simmering somewhere waiting for the right conditions to spread. The last known case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed it was gone in 1979.
A long history
Smallpox has been around a while. It’s thought to have first appeared in the early agricultural settlements of Africa around 10,000 BCE. Some Egyptian mummies show smallpox scaring on their skin. The disease is also mentioned in the ancient texts of China and India. Because of this long history, it was common knowledge that survivors of smallpox were immune to getting the disease again. From this observation two practices came about: inoculation and variolation. Both of these practices involved taking matter from an infected person’s pustules with a lancet and putting it under the skin of a healthy person. The process did come with risks however. For one, you were just exposed to a potentially deadly disease. Also, if that pustule donor had syphilis pox hidden among the smallpox, you got that too. The thing was, deliberately infecting yourself under the skin instead of catching it often gave you a milder version of the disease. If you were lucky, that is. You could still die, go blind, and be scarred. Even George Washinton had his troops variolated. I recall reading they used needles and thread — literally sewing through the pustule then through the next person’s healthy skin and pulling the infected thread along.
Not all pox are created equal
Smallpox is an Orthopox, a virus capable of infecting humans. There are a lot of pox’ out there: cowpox, monkeypox, camelpox, and orf (sheep pox), to name a few. It was one such orthopox that caught the eye of an English country doctor by the name of Edward Jenner.
Europe of the late 1700’s saw smallpox making the rounds and leaving death and terrible side-effects in its wake. Dr. Jenner noticed there was one portion of the population that seemed immune, and they all shared the same occupation — they were milkmaids. Cows often came down with cowpox with pustules on the udders. When cows were infected like this, it was common for milkmaids to get those same pustules on their hands from direct contact with the cowpox. An old wives tale back then made a connection but no one knew why milkmaids were safe from the smallpox scourges. Jenner studied the cowpox and determined they looked a lot like smallpox. It was already known at the time that people who contracted the lesser form never got the severe form of the disease. Milkmaids never had smallpox in any form. Where did this immunity come from? By examining the milkmaids’ hands, he determined that cowpox must be a weaker version of smallpox.
Have you thanked a cow today?
In May 1796, Edward Jenner found a milkmaid with fresh cowpox lesions on her hands. Using the same variolation procedure, he inoculated an 8-year-old boy. The boy developed mild fever but no pox. In July, Jenner inoculated the boy with matter from a fresh smallpox pustule. No smallpox at all. Jenner concluded the boy’s protection from smallpox was complete. And so it was with every other person he worked on. He called the new process vaccination. Vacca is Latin for cow. The satirists of the time had a field day. Naturally if you got a cowpox vaccination, you grew cows all over your body. 🙂
Tomorrow ~ letter W!
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