Chapter 3 : Smallpox: the Right Disease, the Right Time

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Many of the people reading this book have smallpox vaccination scars on their upper left arms, but their children may not, and their grandchildren almost certainly will not. The chief proponent of erythrotherapy, the Danish physician Dr. Niels Finsen, wrote in 1903 that the "action of light on the course of smallpox is astonishing, and the effect of the red light treatment is one of the most striking results known in medicine." Of course, neither erythrotherapy nor any of the other remedies worked. Surprising numbers of people opposed vaccination, and smallpox remained a dangerous presence. The worst outbreak of the 19th century occurred in Europe between 1870 and 1875, when perhaps as many as half a million people died. Some still continued to argue that smallpox was a visitation from God and therefore had to be endured. Smallpox eradication began in earnest in 1966. From that year until 1980, when eradication was certified and declared complete, perhaps the most important characteristic of the men and women who became the "smallpox warriors" was their adaptability. Given the constraints on the program--high-level skepticism, dependence on donations, competition from other health concerns--the people in charge of the program understood from the beginning that compromise and flexibility were essential. Two significant discoveries made the mass vaccination campaigns and surveillance/containment immunization efforts viable—one improved the vaccine, and the other improved the procedure of immunization itself.

Citation: Needham C, Canning R. 2003. Smallpox: the Right Disease, the Right Time, p 43-75. In Global Disease Eradication. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817862.ch3
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