Pandemic past provides some lessons
August 20, 2021
I don’t know about you, but this week’s news about our county’s rise in cases really hit me hard.
I have been “Covid careful” for at least 16 months. I have been cautiously optimistic that “Minnesota Nice” would make us all realize our personal role in each other’s safety and that science would lick this pandemic quickly, so we could get on with life. But alas, the news is not good. It is a big world, full of diverse opinions, disparities and inequalities, all impacting the outcome of this crisis.
And so, as I have done often in my life, I turned to history for insight. To this end, I found the National Geographic issues of February 2021 (“Virus),” November 2020 (“A World Gone Viral”) and August 2020 (“Stopping Pandemics”) particularly helpful. They can be found online (archive.nationalgeographic.com/landing) or at the Cloquet library. I recommend them to you.
The August issue presents a section on the history of smallpox that I found particularly applicable to current times. The disease was first described in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. It probably jumped from rodents to people millions of years ago in Africa and spread to Asia and Western Europe through trade interactions and slavery. European colonization of the New World spread smallpox to the Americas, where it killed native populations in droves. The death rate was estimated at 30 percent and survivors were left with horrific scars and sometimes blindness. Its cause was a virus (variola), but of course no one knew about viruses back then.
In 1721, smallpox arrived in Boston via ship from Europe. An African slave named Onesimus, told his master, the Rev. Cotton Mather, about a procedure commonly followed in Africa to prevent the spread of this illness and save lives. It involved taking fluid from the blistery rash of a smallpox victim and introducing it to a well person through a cut in the skin. Onesimus showed Mather the scar from the procedure. Mather, who in sermons on smallpox called it the “destroying angel,” decided to investigate. He found many other slaves who had had the same procedure in Africa. They were not getting smallpox. He began promoting the procedure to medical people. There was much skepticism, fear, and debate, but many accepted this early form of vaccination, called variolization. In this Boston epidemic, more than 50 percent of the population developed smallpox. The death rate of variolized individuals was 2 percent. The death rate of unvaccinated people was 15 percent.
Despite knowledge of this promising preventive procedure, smallpox continued to inflict its death and suffering upon the world in epidemics as people debated the safety and efficacy of variolization. In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner’s observations of cowpox, a blistering disease found on hands of young girls who milked cows, led him to suspect that smallpox and cowpox had similar causes. (Remember, bacteria were just being discovered and viruses unknown at this time). He scratched the cowpox fluid onto a child’s skin. This protected the boy from the deadly smallpox epidemic that was raging in the community. This event is considered the first vaccination in North America.
Skeptics continued to block the general use of smallpox vaccine for many reasons. A common fear was that vaccinated people would develop horns like cows. And so, years passed, and the world continued to suffer smallpox epidemics. Then in 1967 the World Health Organization launched its campaign to eradicate smallpox with vaccination. It was a truly heroic campaign involving an army of people to reach every corner of the world. The result? As of 1980, it has been a smallpox-free world.
One can only hope that controlling Covid-19 does not take 300 years.
Epidemics (defined as widespread disease transmission in a community) and pandemics (defined as disease transmission worldwide) are not new. They inflict death, suffering and economic pain upon millions. For the first time in recorded history, mankind has enough knowledge (although evolving and incomplete) and technology to confront this suffering, minimize and stop it before it drags on for years. The question is if we can overcome our fear of the unknown, put aside prejudice and politics and embrace these breakthroughs.
I am a Star Trek fan. Dr. Leonard McCoy of Star Trek fame could wave a scanner over a patient, find the cause of the illness and synthesize a vaccine, just like that. That doesn’t seem so fantastic to me anymore when I reflect on the development of the current Covid vaccines.
The rapid development of safe, effective vaccines is technology to be embraced, not feared. We are privileged to live in the USA where we have freedom to get vaccinated or not and the availability of abundant vaccine. We have a choice. The rest of the world is not so fortunate. With freedom comes responsibility. We owe it to our families, friends, communities, and the world to put aside our personal concerns and get vaccinated.
If you just haven’t found the time to get vaccinated, I urge you to do it now.
If you have concerns about safety and efficacy, I recommend that you talk to a trusted doctor, nurse, pharmacist or teacher to help you sort through the information, evaluate what is known, what is unknown, and what is just plain false.
Writer Vicki Anderson, M.D. is medical director of quality at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet and a longtime family practice doctor in the area.