Smallpox was a disease which killed hundreds of thousands of people every year for hundreds of years. Those it didn’t kill, it left scarred and disfigured for life. But in less than 20 years it was completely eradicated such that it became the first disease ever to be declared defeated.
How was this done? Vaccination.
After severe outbreaks after the first and during the second world wars, the newly established World Health Organisation declared in 1959 that it would seek to eradicate smallpox through a world-wide vaccination programme.
Even after a slow beginning with several areas of the planet still in conflict, the programme was a success. The last known human infection was in 1978 in Birmingham, England, when a laboratory accident led to one person dying. The last natural infection was in Somali in 1977 and the WHO declared Smallpox eradicated in 1979. There have been no cases since.
Vaccines have been in existence since at least the end of the 18th Century when British doctor Edward Jenner used cowpox as a vaccine to prevent smallpox in people. However, there is evidence that the Chinese practised a form of inoculation to prevent disease in the first millennium. However, since the end of World War 2, vaccinations have developed into a modern medical miracle which now save almost 3m lives every year, mostly those of children.
Deaths from the diseases we now routinely vaccinate against used to claim millions of lives, mostly of babies and young children. These diseases are now so rare, that this is actually undermining the success of vaccination as a public health strategy.
Few people will have encountered Measles, Mumps or Rotavirus. So they have no sense of just how dangerous and prevalent these diseases were before vaccination.
Taking the United Kingdom alone, in the period from 1931 to 1939 19,002 children under ten years of age died from measles. In the eight years from 1985 to 1993, the equivalent number was just 35.
The near eradication of the disease through vaccination has actually led to its re-emergence. Not being able to see the severity of the illness means that it is difficult to put the risk of not vaccinating your child into its proper context. But let’s try:
There are about 750,000 children born in the UK every year. That was about the same in the 1930s. But in the 1930s more than 2,000 of those children would have died from just Measles. Today, that figure will be 4.
Of the 750,000 children born now, some will experience mild side-effects immediately after they are vaccinated, but statistically less than one child will suffer a severe reaction which might threaten their life.