Misery to Miracle
By Richard P. Holm, MD
Miracles still happen.
Some think that the scourge of smallpox was present around 12,000 years ago, however, we know for sure it was here 3000 years ago as it was found on the face of an Egyptian Pharaoh mummy. We know that it caused many large and devastating epidemics killing about 35 percent of infected adults and 80 percent of infected children. Even during the 20th century, smallpox still resulted in 300-500 million deaths world-wide.
Pictures of people suffering from this miserable viral illness show skin of face and body breaking out with dime-sized firm white or red blisters. People also commonly developed fevers, vomiting, spread of blisters into mouth and eyes, and too often came to a wretched and miserable death. If one survived, the common facial pox scars could be extremely disfiguring and sometimes affected the cornea of eyes causing blindness.
During the tenth century in China, someone began inoculating the fluid from a smallpox blister onto abraded skin on the arm or leg of a healthy individual, allowing for a single pox to get started in a controlled way. This worked fairly well except that the procedure made them infectious to others for a while and resulted in death to the recipient one percent of the time. Contracting smallpox killed about 35 percent of adults, so reducing the rate to one percent was an improvement. This rather dangerous process of inoculating live smallpox became popular in England during the 16 and 1700s.
Smallpox was given the medical term variola from Latin for spotted pimple. It had been commonly known as the red plague until in Britain during the 1600s it was called smallpox to distinguish it from great-pox or syphilis.
Noting that milk maids rarely got smallpox, in 1796 British rural physician Edward Jenner found that inoculating the fluid of the milder disease cowpox provided for substantial immunity from smallpox without significant risk to the recipient and without the danger of spreading smallpox. Jenner called the cowpox inoculate “vaccine” after vacca, the Latin word for cow.
With a vaccination campaign lead by the World Health Organization, world-wide deaths reduced from two million per year in 1967 to none in 1977. I find it nothing short of a miracle that in those ten years, human smallpox infections were virtually eliminated from this world. It was a miracle wrought by human intelligence, the ingenuity of creative and resourceful minds, and the scientific method.
It was the miracle of vaccination.
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