History

The mysterious Red Plague – History of worlds first vaccine

For 3,000 years, a deadly virus had caused havoc on Earth. The disease inflicted by this virus was so painful and dangerous, that a person contaminated had a 30% chance of dying. 1 in every 3 persons infected died due to it. The people who survived got permanent scars on their bodies. Their faces were scarred forever. There were huge spots on the face. And many were permanently blinded. When this disease spread in Japan in 1735, It wiped out one-third of Japan’s population. When the European colonisers took this disease to Mexico and America, in the 1500s, 90% of the Native Tribal population there perished. In the 18th century, every seventh child born in Russia, was killed because of this disease. Many empires and civilizations were wiped out from history by this. It is estimated that this virus took 5 million lives each year. In 100 years, it amounted to 500 million deaths. Half a billion people were killed. The recent Covid-19 pandemic, looks like a joke when compared to this disease. It has been given many names throughout history. Speckled Monster, the Red Plague, Pox. In India, it was known as Mata Lagna. [Being afflicted by the Goddess.] But perhaps the most common name for this was Smallpox. Interestingly, during the 1700s, when this disease had wreaked havoc all over the world, there was a quaint village in England, where the farmers seemed to be immune from this disease. 

This was a mystery. It seemed as if the farmers living there had superpowers, to protect them from this dangerous virus. “Smallpox emerged in human populations thousands of years ago. As a contagious virus that spread rapidly. Smallpox is the most formidable and devastating disease in human history. Before vaccination came along, Smallpox was one of the biggest killers. Smallpox vaccination has been one agent which has been responsible for eradicating smallpox from large areas of the world.” “It is a true monster.” Friends, smallpox was a viral disease spread by the Variola virus. It was a type of Orthopox virus. In the same category, you’d also find Monkeypox, Cowpox, These are Orthopox viruses too. Smallpox was a highly contagious disease. It spread very easily. With the merest of sneezes or coughs, the respiratory droplets could spread it. It could be spread by a person’s saliva. Through the rashes on the skin. Even through contaminated surfaces. By using towels, bedsheets, or clothes of an infected person. And once infected, the initial symptoms were similar to normal cold and cough, but eventually, rashes started appearing on the body, later, these rashes turned into boils, in Hindi, they were known as Fafole. The face and body of the person were then covered by these boils. It is quite disgusting to describe. So I won’t go into the details. Neither would I show you the pictures of what it looked like. If you are curious about it, you can search it on Google about what a person infected with Smallpox looked like. About 8-16 days after being infected, and getting headaches, vomiting, rashes and fever, the person died. As I told you, the death rate was 30%. If you compare this with Covid-19, Covid-19’s death rate is less than 1%. Perhaps the worst part was that it infected children much more. And the death rate among children was even higher. Where did this disease emerge from? How? No one knows this. But it is estimated that around 10,000 BC, when humans turned to agriculture for the first time, the first farming settlements were seen in Africa, and humans began the domestication of cattle and poultry, then humans came into contact with these animals for prolonged periods. These orthopox viruses are normally found in these mammals. So it is assumed that it must have come from somewhere there. Some scientists believe that it could have come from rodents as well. But the first evidence of this disease was found in 1156 BC. When an ancient Egyptian Mummy, was embalmed and laid to rest, that had the same scarring on the face that happened due to smallpox. It has been mentioned in ancient texts in India and China. In the Sanskrit text Susruta Samhita, written around 6th century BC, this is mentioned. Since then we have found no cure for this deadly disease. Modern medicine has no cure for Smallpox till today. But one this is for sure, for a long time, people understood the concept of immunity, People noticed that the people who survived this disease, weren’t infected by it again. So several doctors deduced that one way to be safe from this disease would be to infect the person with a small dose of the virus before it could infect them. It might make them sick, but it wouldn’t kill them, hopefully, and later they wouldn’t have to go through with it. This process is called Inoculation. It is believed to have originated somewhere in India or China. Around the 18th century, a group of Brahmins called Tikadaar, carried out the inoculation. They would pick out scabs from the skin of infected people, the hardened scar tissue formed due to this disease. Then they would prick the hand of a healthy person with an iron needle, and then they would put the infected scabs on the pricked skin. Inoculation has been mentioned in the 11th century in China, when the Buddhist monks living in Tibet’s mountains, collected these scabs and turned them into powder, and blew this powder into the nose of a healthy person. These techniques spread from India and China reached the Ottoman Empire and later Europe as well. But there was a huge problem with this procedure of inoculation. What was the guarantee that the small dose of the virus used to infect people wouldn’t actually kill them? There were none. This is why 1%-2% of people died due to inoculation. They contracted smallpox and died a painful death. But 1%-2% death rate was much better than the 30% death rate. So many people preferred being inoculated. The second problem was that the people who were inoculated were left with these permanent scars. Their faces looked like this. The third problem was that this was contagious. The inoculated people were spreading the virus all over the world. In the village of Gloucestershire in 18th century England, a mysterious event occurred. The farmers, cattle builders, and milkmaids working there never contracted smallpox. In 1795, Doctor Edward Jenner, wanted to investigate this. When he talked to the people of the village, the villagers told him that those who contracted Cowpox, do not contract smallpox. Cowpox was another disease. But not as deadly as smallpox. Jenner wondered if catching cowpox was prevention against smallpox. If so, it could be a simple solution to prevent smallpox. There was only one way to test this. By running experiments and collecting proofs. In May 1796, a woman named Sarah, who was infected with Cowpox, went to Dr Edward Jenner for treatment. Dr Jenner drew out the pus from her boils, and stored it. This was his chance to test his theory. But on whom could he test it? Someone had to be the host. Dr Jenner’s gardener had an 8-year-old son James, Jenner called the child and pricked his hand, and intentionally infected him with Cowpox. Days later, the child caught fever due to Cowpox. But he recovered. Six weeks later, Dr Jenner, took lesions from smallpox, and then infected the child with smallpox. Today, experimenting on children like this is not only morally wrong but also goes against the law. But it was different back then. There were no such morals and laws back then. Infecting a child with smallpox meant that there was a high chance he would die. But thankfully it didn’t happen so. The child had developed immunity against smallpox. Not only did this experiment prove that cowpox could prevent smallpox, but also that we could deliberately spread cowpox from human to human. Friends, this meant that Dr Jenner had invented the world’s first vaccine. World’s First Successful Vaccine. And this child was vaccinated with the world’s first vaccine. Actually the word vaccination was coined by Dr Jenner. It comes from the Latin word Vacca, meaning Cow. Because cowpox was protecting the child, the word vaccination was derived from here. Today obviously, the word vaccination has a broad definition. We don’t restrict its use to cowpox only, rather we use this word for every type of vaccine. Vaccination was much safer than inoculation. The 1%-2% risk of dying from inoculation, was diminished further. The chances of dying from cowpox were almost negligible. Today, we’re well aware of the workings of this process. Cowpox and Smallpox, both viruses came from the Orthopox family. The two are so similar that when our immune system is infected by Cowpox, our immune system is able to detect when a similar virus attacks. Such as Smallpox. The antibodies developed while fighting the previous infection, can then be used against smallpox, and we can survive unscathed. Recently, another orthopox virus is spreading all over the world you must have heard about it, Monkeypox. It is from the same family, and thankfully, according to the World Health Organisation, it is much less severe than Smallpox, not as contagious, and the death rate here is 3%=6%. Some studies have also found that the smallpox vaccine is 85% effective against Monkeypox as well. But there’s no doubt that whenever there’s a new disease it causes a significant adverse effect on our lives.
This effect is seen the most in terms of medical costs. On our expenses. Do you know that due to Covid-19, there was the highest medical inflation in India as compared to other Asian countries. 14%. When Dr Jenner presented his vaccine discovery to the world, you might assume that the world applauded him. For his outstanding work. That millions of lives could be saved with this. But the actual reaction was contrary to this. Dr Jenner had to face severe backlash, he was largely mocked. When he presented his findings to the Royal Society of London, his report was rejected. The President of the Royal Society, told Dr Jenner to forget his research. But Dr Jenner stood his ground. He carried out further investigation and gathered more data. And then published his book. Enquiry Into The Causes And Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. With time, many doctors and scientists were convinced but convincing the people was a Herculean task. Many religious organisations opposed vaccinations. They claimed that the vaccines went against God’s Plan. That we shouldn’t partake in it as it is unnatural. Some people were disgusted thinking that our bodies would be breached with animal matter. Cowpox would be injected. They didn’t like this. In many European places, people were scared that by taking this vaccine, they would slowly turn into a cow! Many painters and artists made fun of this showing bovine features emerging from human bodies. People carrying out inoculations, strongly opposed vaccinations, because it affected their business. With time the governments noticed the efficacy of the vaccines, so they started mandating it. In 1853, England became the first country to make Smallpox Vaccination compulsory for the children. This is where the first Anti-Vax movements began. Organisations and groups emerged strongly opposing vaccinations. Another challenge for Dr Jenner was to take the vaccinations to the rest of the world. But how could he transport the vaccines? What would happen in countries with no Cowpox? They would have to take the Cowpox to those countries first. So he developed three main methods. In the first, he took a long string, drenched it in the pus, and once it dried, he transported it in ships. Then the healthy people were told to place a tiny cut on themselves, that would bleed, and to put the dried string on the bleeding cut. This is how the vaccine reached Canada in 1800. But the problem was that for longer distances, this method wasn’t very useful. If the strings travelled for a long time, they became useless. The second way was to transport the fluids in glass tubes. By sealing it with wax. This is how the vaccine reached other European countries and cities. But the third and the strangest way which actually turned out to be the most successful was using children. Children infected with Cowpox were put on ships, and transported to faraway places, so that they could infect more people with Cowpox in those areas. They also placed healthy people on the same ship, as well as doctors, who would steadily infect healthy people with Cowpox. By the time the ship reached its destination, more people were being vaccinated and someone who was recently vaccinated with available Cowpox was always at hand. The first Cowpox vaccine in India reached through the Middle East, in 1802. But unfortunately, in a country as large and poor as India, taking this vaccine to every individual wasn’t easy. Over the next 150 years, this vaccine couldn’t reach the masses in India, due to which, in 1974, there was a fatal outbreak in India, of Smallpox. By this point in time, in most of the world, the vaccination coverage was at least 80%. Years ago, in 1958, the Health Minister of the Soviet Union, had convinced the World Health Organisation to launch a global campaign to eradicate Smallpox from the world. The same year, the program was officially launched to take this vaccine to all corners of the world. But India was a major problem area. Our government launched the National Smallpox Eradication Programme in 1962, spent a lot of money in manufacturing the vaccines, training the health workers, and by 1966, about 60 million people were already vaccinated. But it wasn’t enough. The number of infections was rising rapidly. In 1974, the worst smallpox epidemic was seen in India. Within 5 months, more than 15,000 people were killed. 86% of the cases of Smallpox in the world were from India at the time. There were several reasons for this. India’s large population. People constantly migrating from one place to another, for political, economic, and educational reasons. The media penetration wasn’t much. So to inform each and every person that they need to get a vaccine, was very difficult. The Tikadaars whose livelihoods depended on inoculation, were protesting this for a long time. Many people believed that the disease smallpox spread through the anger of a Goddess Shitala. Instead of getting the vaccine, they preferred to go to temples to appease the goddess. There was widespread superstition. Many religious people rejected the vaccines because this was derived from cows. Another thing was that in the 1970s, the method of getting vaccinated, were very painful. It hurt a lot. Additionally, due to the Indian summers, the vaccines would often spoil. This is why in the year 1970, the World Health Organisation and the Indian Government collaborated to come up with a new plan to eradicate this virus from India. In 1971, a team of 4 WHO medical officers came to India, and India signed the agreement to acquire the first Freeze-Dried Vaccines. It became much easier to store and transport them. New and less painful vaccination techniques were introduced. The team was sent to the nooks and crannies of the country so that they could convince the people. Especially the kids, so that they would get this important vaccine. Posters were put up everywhere. To encourage vaccinations. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked the citizens to cooperate. and people were even given a reward of ₹100, for reporting cases of smallpox. The government used the radio constantly to explain to the people, the importance of getting the vaccine. Finally, these efforts were so successful that in 1975, the last case of smallpox was seen in India. After that, this disease was eradicated from India forever. The people born in or after 1975, their parents or grandparents, would have a round scar on their upper arm. That is the scar of the Smallpox vaccine. The World Health Organisation ran similar campaigns in Africa and South America as well. Due to these efforts, the last case of natural infection by smallpox, was seen in 1977 in Somalia. The last person to die of this disease, was an English woman who was accidentally exposed to this virus in a laboratory. This happened in 1978. And friends, in 1979, the World Health Organisation officially declared, that this disease has been wiped out from the world. Ever since then no case of smallpox has been seen in the world. If you are around my age, or you were born after 1980, we don’t need to get this vaccine for smallpox, because this virus has been wiped off from the world. Can you imagine that a small discovery by Dr Jenner, changed the world for the better? It is estimated that each year, 5 million lives are spared, because this vaccine exists, and because this disease has been eradicated. Shockingly, we still do not know the cure for this disease, and neither did we need to look for it. We prevented it through vaccination and eradicated it. Only two samples of this virus exist in the world. They are stored in two very highly secured laboratories. A lab under the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and a lab under the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology. The virus samples are kept safe there. They have been stored to enable more research. There’s still a fear that someone might genetically engineer this virus. By potentially leaking it from the labs, it could lead to another fatal outbreak this was the story of the World’s First Vaccine.