Close-up Look at Smallpox in my Memoir

How can you picture the horrors of smallpox? It’s more hideous than I’d ever imagined before moving to Africa.

In The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era, Bob H. Reinhardt referred to the heroes who risked their safety and sanity in pursuit of the goal to eradicate smallpox.

Why? Why did those heroes, including my husband, take such risks?

So, what do you think? Can you imagine a disease so terrible that those public health heroes, with their families, risked safety and sanity?

A Woman with Smallpox

Let me introduce you to two women I encountered on a road not far south of the Sahara. In a scene that became familiar to Carl and me, people ran to the road at the sight of the smallpox program truck, arms raised in salute. “Ranka didi” (may you have long life).

Get to know a woman with smallpox, just a bit, in a passage from Vaccines & Bayonets.

“Among those closest to my window were two women, a mother and daughter I guessed. The older woman’s eyes locked with mine, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Perhaps the younger woman had once been beautiful–before smallpox. With her deep, pitted scars she could manage only a hint of a smile. But her vision had been spared, and an urgent light burned in eyes framed by pockmarks where eyelashes should have been. I recoiled inside—fought to keep my face from revealing the wave of nausea. But I forced myself to look into her eyes. That’s it. Concentrate. Focus on nothing but the eyes. That’ll make it easier. Holding my gaze, the young woman picked up the toddler clinging to her legs, his skin smooth as silk, and proudly held him up to show me. ‘Ranka didi! Ranka didi!’

I knew many facts about the virus that the two women did not.

But they knew the smell of smallpox, could sense it from yards away—the smell of decaying flesh, like that of a dead animal. The young woman would know its aches, chills, fever and nausea. She knew the stealth of smallpox, for after she seemed to recover from the flu-like symptoms, the virus suddenly leapt from hiding. It planted sores in her mouth, and raced across her forehead, then the rest of her face, stealing her beauty, then down her body to the palms of her hands, the soles of her feet. It persisted until it filled the hideous sores with pus, white, then yellow.

She knew the aloneness of the isolation hut, and in that dark space knew hunger when sores in her mouth and throat made it too painful to swallow. She knew agony from the unseen lesions on internal organs, and from bedding brushed against pustules beginning to break down. And then—after defying the odds and surviving smallpox, she would have known emotional isolation as friends averted their eyes. And worse, the horror in the eyes of her husband when he tried to look at her.

As the older woman kept vigil, she could have known heartbreaking memories of children she had buried after their gruesome deaths, and the fear of losing one more.”

But the woman so damaged by smallpox, held up the little toddler with his perfect skin and gave her salute. Because of our campaign he would never have the hideous disease. This year, there was no new patch of tiny graves outside their village.

Would experiences like mine motivate you to stay the course?

Still to come in future posts: the smallpox story in history.

smallpox vaccination poster in Hausa language.
Another Nigerian smallpox vaccination poster

Thank you for your visit today.

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Close-up Look at Smallpox in my Memoir

  1. I can only imagine how your heart ached for these people, but what courage you showed! Looking into the eyes of a woman who has suffered so, connecting with kindness and love, has to be only one of many, many stories you’ve told in your book. And the ultimate fairy tale ending — the one that came true — the eradication of smallpox! I am so grateful to you and your husband for the parts you played in this extraordinary story.

    1. Well, Laura, I think when you wind up far outside your own comfortable realm, you do things you would never have thought you could. And yes, the eradication of smallpox is the story with the happy ending. I so appreciate your comment.

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