If we dare to express doubt about vaccine efficacy, or raise concerns for safety, we are sharply rebutted and reminded of smallpox as a solid testament to the power of immunisation to combat disease.
For generations, we have been conditioned to believe that smallpox is a highly contagious, indiscriminate, and deadly virus — that it killed many millions worldwide, and that we were only saved from its ghastly ravages by the development of vaccinations.
However, upon closer examination, this popular narrative is belied by the facts and historical reporting. What is commonly assumed as settled history may be the result of modern medical propaganda.
There is another story: that vaccines did not eradicate smallpox, but actually made the problem worse. Like many other diseases, cases were already decreasing by the time vaccinations were introduced, but then began to rise again with the rollout of mass immunisation. Smallpox was at its peak during the 1700s, though it was often confused and conflated with other illnesses with similar symptoms, including chicken pox, measles, shingles, scarlet fever, and secondary syphilis.
In modern times it has become a somewhat fabled disease, but in days gone by it was regarded as a lethal, everyday scourge that you would be considered lucky to avoid. Anxiously accepted as an unpleasant part of life, some chose to purposefully infect themselves to get it over with, or as an attempt to reduce intensity of symptoms. This ‘arm-to-arm’ (or up the nose) transfer of a biological sample was known as variolation and involved matter from an infected pustule being blown up the nose or pricked into the skin of the recipient. It was a risky procedure because there was always a chance of catching some other infection or disease, which could also lead to death.
In 1796, historical golden boy, Edward Jenner, often referred to as “the father of immunology,” began experimenting on cows after hearing a local farmer had apparently gained smallpox immunity by inoculating himself with cowpox secretions. Jenner hypothesised that because cows didn’t carry the same transmissible diseases as humans they would be safer to use as donors for the inoculation procedure. He quickly began testing the method.
Eight-year-old James Phipps was one of the first to be immunised by Jenner; by the time he died at the age of 20 he had been vaccinated over 20 times. Jenner also tested the vaccine on his own son, who became crippled and died at 21. Both men died of tuberculosis, which some researchers attribute to the smallpox vaccine (Eleanor McBean, The Poisoned Needle).