Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Vaccination, Edward Jenner, History, and the Human Condition

"Dec. 15, 1827: Boston Schools Require Vaccination"
This Day in Tech, Wired (December 15, 2009)

"1827: The 'No child left unvaccinated' act becomes the law for Boston schools.

"Smallpox was a deadly, disgusting disease, with the nasty habit of killing one-third of those who contracted the disease, and maiming those who were fortunate enough to survive it.

"Boston's declaration came just three decades after Edward Jenner discovered in 1796 that blister pus from those infected with the less-deadly cowpox could be used to immunize humans from smallpox...."

Think people being spooked about vaccinations is something new?

"...Such rules weren't universally loved, and in 1905, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to Massachusetts' mandatory vaccination law...."

"...Scientifically unfounded fears that vaccines cause autism have recently led many parents, particularly those in wealthy areas like Marin County, California, to forgo vaccinations, despite the risks of disease...."

Edward Jenner, (Re)Discoverer of Inoculation?

Looks like Edward Jenner deserves credit, more for popularizing inoculation, than "discovering" the procedure. Apparently, the origins of inoculation so far back that they're not known. The Ottoman court used an early version of the procedure, and that's where European aristocracy and nobility found out about it.

Smallpox had been a very serious problem in Europe, so European leaders were very interested in finding ways to protect people from the disease.

"...In 1757, an 8-year-old boy was inoculated with smallpox in Gloucester; he was one of thousands of children inoculated that year in England. The procedure was effective, as the boy developed a mild case of smallpox and was subsequently immune to the disease. His name was Edward Jenner...."
(Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings)

The Wired article does a pretty good job of outlining what smallpox is, why it's dangerous (quite a few people who catch it, die), and why inoculations are a good idea.

Speaking of which:

Smallpox: Deadly, Ancient, and Eradicated (We Hope)

The last known cases of Smallpox were in England, in 1978: the result of a laboratory accident.

"...The World Health Organization officially certified that smallpox had been eradicated on December 9, 1979, 2 years after the last case in Somalia...."

Three decades later, with no known outbreaks, it looks like the disease is gone for good: and I don't miss it a bit. I also think it's a good idea to keep lab cultures around, in case the WHO didn't get every last carrier, or someone didn't report a case or two.

Sure, it sounds like a good idea to get rid of the last known samples of smallpox microbes. After all, what if they got their hands on smallpox cultures? ("They" could be any of a wide rage of bogeymen, including but not limited to: the CIA; terrorists (Islamic, white supremacist, whatever); space-alien, shape-shifting lizard people (you can't make this sort of stuff up, folks).

I'd just as soon keep a few samples of smallpox around. Under lock and key, of course, but it's not absolutely certain that smallpox will never, ever, return. Somebody, somewhere, might have misdiagnosed a case of smallpox, or failed to report it: and there's a (remote) possibility that there are carriers among Earth's 6,000,000,000 or so people: who show no symptoms, but can pass the disease to others.

Since researchers need lab cultures of smallpox - or any other disease - to develop vaccines, and since it takes time to collect, isolate, and grow specimens: I'd just as soon let researchers have a head start. Any disease that could kill between a quarter and a third of the people who aren't vaccinated is not something I think we'd want to spread, while folks in labs tried to re-create usable cultures.

Researching this post, I ran into an interesting article from Baylor University's medical center. ("Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination" (January 18, 2005)) Besides giving a more-than-usually detailed and documented history of the disease, I think the reader will notice the real-world origins of a few of the wilder urban legends that "everybody knows" in some American subcultures.

Another point, from the Baylor article: It looks like smallpox, a specifically human disease, may have appeared at about the same time as agriculture.

That suggests quite a few more-or-less crazy ideas. Like:
  • Agriculture was a bad idea
  • Neolithic hunters developed smallpox to wipe out the people who were practicing agriculture
    • Thereby defending delicate little Mother Nature from the big, bad farmers
  • Neolithic farmers developed smallpox to wipe out the neolithic hunters
    • Because the neolithic farmers were greedy oppressors
And no, I don't think any of that's true. Apart from smallpox and agriculture coming at about the same time.

Vaguely-related posts: More:
(WHO and Baylor don't quite agree on historical details - I'm inclined to favor Baylor's assumption that the disease is older)

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