Nigerian smallpox vaccination poster in the Hausa language
Smallpox: The Why?
It’s time to shift gears. It’s time for the Why. Not why I wrote Vaccines & Bayonets (I’ve already blogged about that), but why our family moved to Africa. Why my husband later left the family at home in the States while he worked in Bangladesh.
Very mild smallpox
Can You Picture Smallpox?
What do you know about smallpox? If you arrived on this planet after the 1960s, you may never have heard much about it. You may not even have seen your grandmother’s vaccination scar. After all, the last routine smallpox vaccinations in the United States were in 1972. Ancient history, right?
Maybe you think, “Wasn’t that, like, a real bad rash or something?”
Is Smallpox Like Chickenpox?
Maybe you think smallpox is just a more severe form of chicken pox, which you may have had. You had some raised red bumps that became fluid-filled blisters. You might have had a headache and fever. The worst was that itch! An itch that made you want to climb the walls. But when it was over (probably 5 to 10 days) the scabs fell off, and despite a few small permanent pock marks (if you scratched and caused infection) your life was back to normal.
Thomas Jefferson on Smallpox and the Vaccine
In short, Thomas Jefferson’s 1806 prediction is coming true. As an amateur scientist he did a trial of the newly discovered vaccine on 200 people—his slaves, extended family, and neighbors. After seeing how spectacularly, and quickly, the vaccine protected against the disease, he wrote in a letter, “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome disease has existed.”
Our family is part of that monumental history.
Over the next several posts I’ll give you a brief introduction to the Why, a picture of smallpox, and the disease through history. How it dethroned monarchies. How public health heroes defeated it.
The next two photos (Bangladesh, 1975) show moderate smallpox
So why did our family move to Africa? And why did Carl go to Bangladesh? You are Looking at The Why
Smallpox: The Most Dreaded Scourge in History
An old German adage said, “From love and smallpox, but few remain free.”
Smallpox has been present in every part of the world and has killed more people than the plague (the Black Death) or cholera or yellow fever. It killed half-a-billion people in the 20th century alone.
- There is no cure.
- There is no treatment.
- 25%-60% of victims die – an agonizing death.
- 30%-40% of smallpox survivors are left blind.
- 60%-85% of survivors are left with deep, disfiguring scars.
Vials of the smallpox virus still exist. Legally, only in two secure laboratories—one in the U.S., one in Russia. (More on this in a future post.)
Here’s a brief excerpt from the opening chapter of my memoir.
“In the front seat with his driver, Carl leaned forward, searching. He had to find the group of nomads before they moved on. For my husband, vigilance was not optional.
“We knew exactly what was at stake. More than once today out here in the Sahel, this belt between Sahara and savanna, people had appeared out of nowhere, many with skin covered by the ugly, hard-earned badge of having survived smallpox. Running toward our truck, they raised their fists and shouted. ‘Ranka didi!‘ May you live long! Then the ululation—the long, emotional high-pitched trilling sound. It was a common response to our white Dodge Power Wagon and its blue-lettered sign, ‘Smallpox Measles Program.’” Bee Bloeser in Vaccines & Bayonets
Smallpox Up Close
I had some textbook knowledge of smallpox. I’d seen photographs. But nothing prepared me for seeing a smallpox victim or survivor. Up close. In my next post I’ll try to let you see and smell the gruesome disease smallpox.
How do you feel about taking a closer look at smallpox?
Have you had a direct experience with the disease?
If you are one of those who knows far more than I about smallpox, welcome! I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for visiting my blog today.