Why Do We Vaccinate Against Smallpox?
We vaccinate against smallpox to allow the body to develop antibodies which will make it more or less immune to attack from the disease. In fact, by vaccination or inoculation we mean that a person is injected with the organism that causes the disease or its toxin (poison). This organism is modified physically or chemically, so that, without doing any damage, it triggers the body’s immunizing defences. We call these modified cultures vaccines.
Vaccination against smallpox was first carried out in the East. Poisonous material taken from the blisters of a mild case of smallpox was inserted into the arm of the person to be protected. This produced a mild case of smallpox and enabled the body to manufacture the antibodies.
Vaccination was introduced into England in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, who had her own children inoculated at Constantinople. However, this method could result in a severe or fatal attack of the disease.
Dr. Edward Jenner took the next step in 1796 when he inoculated a boy named James Phipps with poisonous matter from the arm of Sarah Nelmes, a dairymaid suffering from cowpox (a mild disease closely allied to smallpox). Some weeks later he inoculated James Phipps with smallpox, but the boy did not contract the disease.
He followed up his observation that milkmaids who had previously caught cowpox did not later catch smallpox by showing that inoculated cowpox protected against inoculated smallpox. The word “vaccine” is derived from Variolae vaccinae (i.e. smallpox of the cow), the term devised by Jenner to denote cowpox and used in the long title of his An enquiry into the causes and effects of Variolae vaccinae, known by the name of cow pox.
In 1798 Jenner published a book on his experiments, and the practice of vaccination spread throughout the world. The principle has been applied to many diseases. Babies and young children are particularly susceptible to complications from whooping cough and diphtheria, so they are immunized soon after birth. Poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis), cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid are all dangerous diseases which inoculation has been able to control.
Vaccination, the term which soon replaced cowpox inoculation and vaccine inoculation, was first used in print by Jenner’s friend, Richard Dunning in 1800. Initially, the terms vaccine/vaccination referred only to smallpox, but in 1881 Louis Pasteur proposed that to honour Jenner the terms be widened to cover the new protective inoculations being introduced.
The smallpox vaccine is no longer available to the public. In 1972, routine smallpox vaccination in the United States ended. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared smallpox was eliminated. Because of this, the public doesn’t need protection from the disease.
Today, the smallpox virus only exists in samples in research laboratories. The vaccine still is used to protect certain people, like those who work with the virus. The United States also has a supply of smallpox vaccine available in case of an outbreak, which is unlikely. If you got vaccinated before 1972, you are no longer protected. Studies show that the vaccine is effective for 3 to 5 years.