What Smallpox can tell us about COVID-19

Image courtesy of WHO

By Jack Rowing

On December 9, 1979, the World Health Organization announced the eradication of smallpox. It was an historic day for the world as one of the world’s deadliest diseases had been rendered nonexistent through the perseverance of science, public health, and globalism. Now as the world faces another deadly disease, the parallels between the two are becoming undeniably apparent as the challenges that faced the world then, are similar to the ones society is facing now. 

Smallpox’s appearances throughout history demonstrate just how perverse its impact was. The disease has been estimated to kill upwards of 300 million people throughout history; smallpox killed every three out of ten people who contracted the disease. It altered the state of North American life for when the colonists first came over, smallpox was introduced to the continent and rampaged through the Native Americans who were living there. During the revolutionary war, George Washington ordered all of his troops to receive the smallpox vaccine, to prevent it from spreading rapidly amongst his army. His actions helped prevent outbreaks amongst his men, which would have decimated the colonies fighting ability. 

Its eradication is largely called one of the greatest public health achievements of all time. However, it almost wasn’t. Despite widespread availability, anti-vaccine movements sprang up that continued to perpetuate the disease for decades. America and the world are currently at a crossroads for access and acceptance of the Covid 19 vaccine have the ability to prevent unnecessary deaths. Failure to achieve worldwide herd immunity could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In the mid to late 1800s, the original charges brought against the smallpox vaccine were that it did not thoroughly protect from the smallpox virus and that it introduced new diseases to the human body. Researchers at the time believed that if they could combat this misinformation, it would lead to more people receiving the vaccine and the eradication of the disease. There was a considerable belief that the primary component of the distrust in the vaccine was driven by class distrust, impoverished people at the time began to attribute the correlation to vaccine and safety from the disease to be a product of higher levels of sanitation in the upper classes, who were also more vaccinated.

The belief that the vaccine was ineffective largely came out of the need for revaccination. The smallpox vaccine, unlike vaccines today, was a painful experience and resulted in a nasty scar. The vaccine losing its effectiveness as years went on, led doctors to call for a second dose. This led many vaccine deniers to pounce upon the information and argue that the natural detriment of the provided immunity demonstrated that it was never effective to begin with. This is similar to today, where vaccine deniers attribute the booster shot as proof of its ineffectiveness. 

Smallpox, the deadliest disease in human history, experienced its last case in 1977. The vaccine is the sole reason for its eventual eradication. The vaccine created in 1796, took almost 200 years to accomplish the goal of eradicating the disease. A goal that could have been achieved from its inception. Largely due to access, the world continued to experience the horrors brought on them by the terrible disease, with Somalia being the last country to gain its freedom from it. The U.S. though experienced outbreaks of smallpox not from a lack of access to protection, but from misinformation that led to its persistence. 

The world is currently experiencing the same difficulty. Creating access and convincing people to receive the vaccine will create the herd immunity necessary to eradicate the disease and save lives. Like smallpox, the sole weapon necessary against the virus is the vaccine.

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