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I and most others of my generation carry a scar on our upper arm. It is a reminder of a disease, eradicated 40 years ago this month, that killed 400 million people in the 20th century.

I remember receiving the vaccination in the doctor's office. I was nervous, fearful of a painful needle jab. However, the smallpox vaccination was different from others. A two-pronged needle was pricked repeatedly just into the surface of the skin. I remember being surprised that it didn't hurt.

The vaccination also caused a strange reaction at the point of contact. A large crusty scab would develop in a few days, and then fall off, leaving behind a circular scar. The scar was a sign that one was immune from a horrible disease. When summertime came around, and shirts came off, we would compare each other's scars to see who had the largest, deepest, or weirdest shape. Now, my scar is barely discernible, which is fitting as smallpox was declared eradicated from the world in 1980.

Very few now remember how smallpox ravaged entire populations. Symptoms included large fluid-filled bumps covering the whole body, fever, nausea, and often blindness. The disease killed Queen Mary II of England, King Luis I of Spain, and Tsar Peter II of Russia. More than 30 percent of those who contracted the virus died. In the last 100 years of its existence, the virus killed an estimated half billion people worldwide.

Smallpox virus appears to have originated some 4,000 years ago from an African rodent virus. The virus that ran rampant in the 18th and 19th centuries began to diversify in structure from that found in earlier centuries. Infection in humans required close contact with oral and nasal fluids.

Edward Jenner, an English physician of the late 18th century, noticed that milkmaids rarely came down with smallpox. Upon investigation, he found that the maids and farmers who milked cows often had a mild disease known as cowpox. Jenner eventually found that injecting the scab material from a cowpox lesion granted immunity from smallpox. The word vaccination originates from the Latin word for cow, vacca. Though Jenner received credit for developing the first vaccine, a farmer, Benjamin Jesty, put pieces of cow udder under the skin of his family members to protect them from smallpox some 20 years earlier. Not being a scientist, Jesty never thought to publicize his actions, so Jenner is now known as the father of vaccine science.

There is good news and grim news upon looking at the history of epidemics. In almost all cases, relief does eventually come. The bad news is that it often takes years or decades to find a suitable vaccine for a disease. The good news is that technology has provided much information already about covid-19. We know the structure of the virus. We can assemble portions of the viral structure synthetically. From that information alone, labs now have the means for developing antibodies to covid-19. It does take time but not as long as once required.

Patience is difficult to practice when lives are in the balance.


Editorial on 05/27/2020

Print Headline: Smallpox: The Forgotten Disease

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