Smallpox, often referred to as the “scourge of the world,” killed 300 million people from 1901 to 2000. Those who fell ill with smallpox did not have great chances of survival. In fact, one in three people who got it, died from it. To say that it was a serious and devastating affliction is a huge understatement. Fortunately, in 2019, we are able to say it was a devastating affliction. It was deadly. That is because vaccines eliminated smallpox altogether. There are zero occurrences of the disease, and it remains the only disease rendered completely obsolete through vaccination as of 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
What Was Smallpox?
Now that vaccines eliminated the once-deadly disease, it’s reasonable to have questions. Years and years ago, smallpox or the variola major virus, began with relatively benign symptoms, like chills, fevers, and fatigue. Shortly thereafter, rashes and puss-filled pustules formed in afflicted persons’ noses, mouths, and throats. Many people experience complications, ranging from partial or total blindness up to death. It was spread by touch, bedding, clothes, and coughing and sneezing.
In 1796, Edward Jenner “observed that milkmaids who previously had caught cowpox did not catch smallpox and showed that inoculated vaccinia protected against inoculated variola virus,” the WHO writes. It took over a year hundreds for smallpox vaccinations to become common practice, unfortunately. The important thing is that the widespread use of the smallpox vaccine did take place. The year 1949 marked the final, random case of smallpox in the U.S. Globally, the final case occurred in 1977. Now that the disease is eradicated and has been for some time, smallpox vacations are no longer mandatory. These vaccinations stopped taking place in the U.S. in the 1970s, for all but a few exceptions. Today, a small number of government workers and active military have smallpox vaccinations to protect against bioterrorism.
What Can We Learn From It Today?
Our takeaway in 2019 and moving forward is that vaccines are safe, effective, and save lives. In fact, polio is on its way to becoming the second disease entirely eradicated by the use of vaccines. Currently almost 94% of young Americans, ages 19 months to 35 months, are vaccinated against polio. National and global awareness campaigns can work to drive these numbers up and propel polio to become the second disease obliterated by vaccinations.
What would these campaigns look like? While the campaigns of the past may have been intrusive, there is hope that information and awareness can and will be enough this time around. Governments hope to inform the general public about safety precautions in place and equipment available whenever vaccinations are in development or use. For example, a lab refrigerator and a laboratory freezer are must-haves. Scientists must maintain vaccines at specific temperatures during development. Similarly, when nurses, doctors, and pharmacists out in the field use vaccine refrigerators, medical refrigerators and freezers, and portable benchtop freezers to regulate necessary temperatures. In addition to stowing vaccines in benchtop freezers, health professionals use only original packaging and carefully note expiration dates and any other information critical to safely administering vaccines.
Vaccine-preventable diseases are at an all-time low. Smallpox has been completely eradicated, and polio is well on its way. There are significantly fewer deaths from measles, the flu, and other common, vaccine-preventable infections– up to 2.5 million fewer deaths! Governments, healthcare professionals, and benchtop freezers can keep that trend going with education and awareness surrounding the utility and safety of vaccinations. Answer patients questions calmly and thoroughly. Talk about your benchtop freezer to keep their vaccine at a government-regulated temperature, and talk about the other measures in place to put patients and their safety first.