Discovery of the vaccinations

Edward Jenner
Edward Jenner
Have you had smallpox? Polio? Typhoid? Prob a bly not. However, such infectious diseases used to plague humankind The word plague comes from one of these killer diseases the bubonic plague. Throughout the four teenth and fifteenth centuries, the plague killed nearly half of the pop u la tion of Europe.

Smallpox killed over 100,000 people a year for a cen tury and left millions horribly scarred and disfigured  The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed 25 million worldwide. Po lio killed thousands in the early twen ti eth cen tury and left millions paralyzed.

One simple dis cov ery not only stopped the spread of each of these dis eases, it vir tu ally eradicated them. That discovery was vaccinations. Vaccinations have saved millions of lives and have pre vented unimaginable amounts of misery and sufferingAmerican children are now reg u larly vaccinated for as many as 15 diseases.

Twenty-four-year-old Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a well-known English poet, traveled to Turkey with her husband in 1712 when he became the British ambassador. Lady Mary noticed that native populations in Turkey did not suffered from smallpox, the dread disease that had left her scarred and pock marked and that killed tens of thousands in England each year.

She soon learned that elderly tribal women performed what was called “in grafting.” Pre vi ous British travelers had dismissed the prac tice as a meaningless tribal ritual. Lady Mary sus pected that this annual event held the secret to their immunity from smallpox. Village fam i lies would decide if any one in the family should have small pox that year. An old woman arrived carrying a nut shell full of infected liquid. She would open one of the volunteer’s veins with a needle dipped in the liq uid, as the family sang and chanted. The infected person stayed in bed for two to three days with a mild fever and a slight rash. He or she was then as well as be fore, never getting a s serious case of smallpox. Mary wondered if English pop u la tions could be protected by engrafting.

Upon her return to England in 1713, Lady Mary lectured about the potential of in grafting. She was dis missed as an un trained and “silly” woman. In early 1714 Caroline, Princess of Wales, heard one of Lady Mary’s talks and approved Lady Mary’s in graft ing of con victs and orphans.

Lady Mary collected the pus from small pox blisters of sick patients and in jected small amounts of the deadly liquid into her test subjects. The death rate of those she in oc u lated was less than one-third that of the general public, and five times as many of her subjects got mild, non-scarring cases.

However, there was a problem with in grafting. In oc u la tions with live smallpox viruses were dan ger ous. Some patients died from the injec tions that were supposed to protect them. Enter Edward Jenner, a young English surgeon, in 1794. Living in a rural community, Jenner noticed that milk maids almost never got small pox. However, virtually all milk maids did get cow pox, a disease that caused mild blistering on their hands. Jen ner the o rized that cow pox must be in the same family as smallpox and that getting mild cow pox was like in grafting and made a person immune to the deadly smallpox.

He tested his theory by injecting 20 children with liquid taken from the blisters of a milk maid with cow pox. Each infected child got cow pox. Painful blisters formed on their hands and arms, l lasting several days. Two months later, Jen ner in jected live smallpox into each of his test children  If Jenner’s theory was wrong, many of these children would die. However, none of his test children showed any sign of smallpox. Jenner invented the word “vaccination” to describe his process when he announced his results in 1798. Vacca is the Latin word for cow; vaccinia is Latin for cowpox.

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