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Answers to Go with Susan Smith

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Q. When were vaccines first used? 

A. “The Gale Encyclopedia of Science” includes a long article on vaccines. I had a hunch the disease was smallpox, but I had no idea that vaccine-related medicine was practiced so long ago.

The authors begin with some background:  “A vaccine is a substance used to confer immunity from infectious disease. Vaccines use a variety of different substances to defend the body against potentially harmful microorganisms, ranging from dead microorganisms to genetically-engineered antigens. 

“Effective vaccines change the immune system so it acts as if it has already developed a disease. The vaccine primes the immune system and its antibodies to react quickly and effectively when threated by disease in the future."

Now we get to the part that surprised me: “Even in prehistoric times, physicians observed that individuals who were exposed to an infectious disease and survived were somehow protected against the disease in the future. 

“The first effective vaccine was developed against smallpox, an international peril which killed many of its victims and left others permanently disfigured.

“The disease was so common in ancient China that newborns were not named until they survived the disease. The ancient Chinese were the first to develop an effective measure against smallpox. 

"A snuff made from powdered smallpox scabs was blown up the nostrils of uninfected individuals. Some individuals died from the therapy. But in most cases, a mild infection offered protection from later, more serious infection.

“By the late 1600s, peasants in Poland, Scotland, and Denmark reportedly injected smallpox virus into the skin to obtain immunity. At that time, conventional medical doctors in Europe relied solely on isolation and quarantine of people with the disease.

“This changed in part through the vigorous effort of the Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey in the early 1700s.  Montague had already battled smallpox prior to her travels to Turkey and her face was marked from the illness.

“After observing the success of the Turkish process of ‘ingrafting’ in Constantinople, Lady Montague wrote a friend of the technique. Montague said the Turks injected a preparation of smallpox scabs into the veins of susceptible individuals. Those injected generally developed a mild case of smallpox from which they recovered rapidly, Montague wrote.

“Upon her return to Great Britain, Montague helped convince King George I to allow trials of the technique on inmates in Newgate Prison. Success of the trials cleared the way for variolation, or the direct injection of smallpox, to become accepted medical practice in England until a vaccination was developed late in the century. Variolation also was credited with protecting U.S. soldiers from smallpox during the Revolutionary War. 

“The next leap in the battle against smallpox occurred when Edward Jenner acted on a hunch. Jenner, a country physician, observed that people who were in contact with cows did not develop small pox. Instead they developed cowpox, an illness which caused pox, like small pox, but was not a threat to human life.

With Jenner, as with King George I, we will see that protecting the health of their human research subjects was not a priority:  “In 1796, Jenner decided to test his hypothesis that cowpox could be used to protect humans against smallpox. 

“Jenner injected a healthy eight-year-old boy with cowpox obtained from a milkmaid’s sore. The boy was moderately ill and recovered. Jenner then injected the boy twice with the smallpox virus, and the boy did not get sick.”

Nearly 200 years later, world health authorities declared the world-wide eradication of smallpox.

There were other major vaccination milestones. In 1885, Louis Pasteur saved the life of a boy who had been attacked by a rabid dog with a vaccination made of an extract gathered from the spinal cords of rabies-infected rabbits.  In the first rabies vaccine, the live virus was weakened by drying over potash. 

Baby boomers may remember lining up for polio shots in the 1950s. That vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk. Then in 1961, they swallowed Albert Sabin’s new oral polio vaccine.

In the 1950s, what we called measles, mumps, and chicken pox swept through every school and neighborhood.  Today children receive vaccines for those and many other childhood illnesses.

Now a new chapter is being written in the work of protecting us from the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers around the world are working to develop a vaccine that will pass tests for effectiveness and safety. 

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