Saturday, August 17, 2013

A rarely told story about Vaccination.

In ancient India and China, it was known that people could protect themselves from smallpox by taking scabs from a victim, crushing them into a powder, and swallowing or scratching it into the skin. This unsavoury sounding practice called ‘variolation’ was prevalent in India and slowly spread to the western world in around 1600 AD. The practice though was not widely adopted, because there was a chance of accidently contracting full-blown smallpox and dying. In 1774, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Dorset County, England. A prosperous farmer called Benjamin Jesty, who lived in Dorset, was worried for his family. Although unproven, it was a well known fact in the farming community that milkmaids, who contacted cowpox, were never affected by the deadly smallpox. Cowpox caused pustules on cow udders and reduced milk production. It also caused pustules on milkmaid’s skin, along with fever and headaches. But they would recover in a few days. Two of Jesty’s servants had been infected with cowpox and despite caring for two boys, with small pox, they never contracted smallpox. Jesty had this fact in mind and he decided to take a leap of faith. He took his family to Farmer Elford’s pasture, which had a cow with cowpox. Jesty then took his wife’s stocking needles, dipped its tip on an open cowpox lesion and then inoculated his entire family with the infectious cowpox material. Jesty’s family survived the epidemic and his two sons remained free of smallpox for the rest of their lives. People viewed Jesty’s action of mixing human and animal substances as “abomination” against God. He was scorned, ridiculed and even pelted with stones. As a young boy, Edward Jenner too had heard about cowpox protecting people from smallpox. In 1772, after completing his medical training the 23 year-old Jenner was still intrigued by the connection. Unfortunately no one had studied it and so Jenner began collecting case reports of people who had been infected with cowpox. When he presented his case study to his medical colleagues, they insisted that his ridiculous idea was merely an old wives’ tale. Undiscouraged, Jenner took matters in his own hands and on May 14, 1796 performed the first vaccination on eight year old James Phipps. Jenner inoculated the boy with infectious cowpox “matter” taken from the hand of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes, who had picked up the infection from a cow named Blossom. Just like Benjamin Jesty, Jenner too faced criticism and ridicule and his data was not accepted by the medical community. In 1798, there was another outbreak of smallpox and Jenner inoculated several children, and all of them survived the outbreak. Rather than approach the medical community, Jenner published his findings in a self-published 64 page paper, in which the word ‘vaccination’ was first used. The practice of vaccination began to spread really fast and within a few years vaccination was administered not only in England but also throughout Europe and America. Vaccination for small pox continued for years and on October 26 1977, a hospital cook in Merka, Somalia became the last person to be infected by small pox. Smallpox became the first disease to be completely eliminated from the face of the earth.

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