I was a little bewildered today when I went to Walmart. For one, there was a guy standing in line in front of me and he was only wearing a white t-shirt. It’s cold outside, so I immediately judged him and quietly labeled him a “moron.” Not that I check out every Tom, Dick, and Moron in Walmart, but since he was right in front of me, I also noticed that when he reached to scratch his arm, he had a scar on his upper left arm. It was pretty damn big. Then, I realized it was “the” scar.
For those of you who were born before 1970 or were in a military family, you should know what I am talking about: The World Health Organization’s Smallpox Eradication program.
So, go get a mirror and look at your left arm. You may just have a scar from the smallpox vaccination.
Are you back? Ok. Let’s move on.
Smallpox has a history of being one of the worst diseases known to man. According to the World Health Organization, WHO, “The incubation period is followed by the sudden onset of influenza-like symptoms including fever, malaise, headache, prostration, severe back pain and, less often, abdominal pain and vomiting. Two to three days later, the temperature falls and the patient feels somewhat better, at which time the characteristic rash appears, first on the face, hands and forearms and then after a few days progressing to the trunk. Lesions also develop in the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth, and ulcerate very soon after their formation, releasing large amounts of virus into the mouth and throat.”
During the 1950′s there were more than 50 million cases of smallpox worldwide….each year. It killed as many as 30% of those infected.
And it is the only disease that was eradicated because of the vaccine. From the information that I have read on the subject, (historyofvaccines.org) smallpox was a problem worldwide for centuries. In our country, there was a colonial epidemic in 1633. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin lost his son to smallpox. He did not have his son innoculated and with remorse, wrote the following:
“In 1736 I lost one of my Sons, a fine Boy of 4 Years old, taken by the Small Pox in the common way. I long regretted that I had not given it to him by Inoculation, which I mention for the Sake of Parents, who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that the Regret may be the same either way, and that therefore the safer should be chosen.”
— Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Franklin on Franklin by Paul Zall
In 1776, 10,000 soldiers with the Continental army in Canada were struck down with smallpox. There was a rumor that a British officer sent infected soldiers into battle to deliberately expose the enemy. This caused the Continental army to retreat, keeping the northern British colonies together.
John Adams wrote, “ Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt the heart of stone. The smallpox is ten times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec.”
— John Adams, quoted in Ian Glynn and Jenifer Glynn, The Life and Death of Smallpox
The timeline marches on.
In 1781, future president Andrew Jackson, contracted smallpox. His brother, Robert, died of the disease.
In 1796, Edward Jenner came up with a vaccine. He tested it on a boy (well, guinea pigs didn’t get smallpox) and it was a success. After that, many countries began innoculation programs. It was brought to our country in 1800.
Fastforward to 1862. During the Civil War, several pockets of the disease popped up.
A hospital was built in Richmond just for smallpox. The Smallpox hospital lost more than 100 patients in one week. During Christmas in 1862, the hospital admitted 250 patients. Only 140 survived the outbreak.
I don’t remember how old I was when I had the smallpox vaccine. I was born in 1956. I think I was around ten or eleven, but I’m not sure. My mom and dad both had scars on their upper left arms. Both of them were pretty large. So, imagine my anguish when I found out I was going to get the smallpox vaccine. I remember standing in line to get it. I am not positive, but I think I was at school. The guidelines were to innoculate anywhere between birth and three years of age and the booster was given 5-10 years after. The first one was more like a scraping.
The mass vaccination strategy did eradicate smallpox. You were lucky if you were only left with a small vaccination scar. The scar was supposed to be no bigger than the size of a dime. Mine was the size of a dime. Many people weren’t so lucky. But, they were lucky they didn’t contract smallpox.
The scar left behind looked like a bunch of little craters.
After receiving the vaccination, after three or four days, a red, itchy bump developed at the site. After the first week, the bump became a large blister, filled with pus, and then it began to drain. During the second week, the blister began to dry and then a scab formed. In theory, by the fourth week, the scab was supposed to fall off, leaving a “small” scar. For some. For others, it left a huge scar that looked like a bunch of little craters. I used to look at people’s arms just to see if they had a huge scar. I was scared to death. I was sure my skinny little arm would be one huge scar.
My mom took care of it though. I think it was hard for boys to take care of their blistered, filled with pus, scab. And I will tell you why. They used to give each other a little quick punch on each other’s arms. Why? Because they were retarded. Well, that’s the word we girls would use back then to describe boys in general anyway. I believe that some are worse because of the itching during the healing process. I didn’t itch mine. I didn’t touch mine. I was not going to have a gigantic swirl of scars on my arm.
The last epidemic of smallpox in the US was in Texas in 1949, seven years before I was born. The last worldwide case was in Somalia in 1977. The US officially stopped vaccinating the general public against smallpox in 1972 but continued to vaccinate certain military personnel until 1990.
So, after staring at the moron in Walmart today and coming home, curious about “the” scar, I learned a great deal.
The most important thing I learned is that I am innoculated against one of the most evil diseases known to man. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that my children aren’t. Most of your children aren’t.
Let’s only hope it never rears its ugly head again.
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