Vaccinations pass test of time in protecting Americans
I’m always amazed at the issues that spring up to divide people. I can pretty much understand why war and politics can be tough questions for debate, but the recent controversy about vaccination — pro and con — is a puzzle. That may be a result of my having grown up in the pre-polio vaccination era. Then, we all were stalked by the enigmatic virus, which could take away the use of a limb or leave us unable to breathe without the aid of an iron lung or outright kill us. Then, the gamble was whether we should come into contact with other people or not. Since summertime seemed a time when children were particularly susceptible, swimming pools and playgrounds were often much quieter than they normally would be during the time when school was not in session.
In 1952, when I was ten years old, 60,000 cases of poliomyelitis with more than 3,000 deaths were reported in the United States (kidshealth.org). This ended with the development of a vaccination by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955, which provided immunity to the crippling disease. It was virtually eliminated in the United States by 1979 and in the Western Hemisphere by 1991. The disease is not gone. It still exists in some parts of our world, but with luck and education, it will someday no longer be a threat.
There is one disease that supposedly now only exists in laboratories because of vaccinations, and that is smallpox. Smallpox was once a scourge with a 20 to 30 percent mortality rate, killing millions of people all over the world. Until the introduction of Europeans, it was unknown in the New World. This meant that Native Americans were particularly vulnerable because they had never had a chance to build up immunity. A way of giving immunity under controlled introduction of small pox had been developed in Asia and Africa. The wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey is given the credit for introducing the process to England in 1721 — sometime before Edward Jenner developed the much safer process of using cowpox variola in 1796.
A process of inoculation was practiced by the famous cleric Cotton Mather in Boston in the early 1700s. He learned it from his African slave, Onesimus, who had been inoculated in Africa. The practice was widely denounced and criticized, until people began to realize that the death rate for those inoculated was much lower than for those who succumbed to the natural form of the disease. The process of inoculation was regarded with deep suspicion even though those who succumbed to the disease without inoculation resulted in a mortality rate of over 17 percent compared at that time to a mortality rate of .9 percent. Virginia and other colonies banned the practice of inoculation. However, the truth of the matter was that people in the New World were not exposed nearly as much as those in Europe, so the deadliness of smallpox didn’t become a pressing issue until the Revolutionary War when large numbers of troops from the Old World arrived to bring the rebellious colonies to heel.
George Washington, who had survived smallpox as a young man visiting his brother Laurence in the Barbados, became worried about the threat of smallpox to his troops in 1777. He described the threat of smallpox to his troops as potentially worse than the “Sword of the Enemy.” (mountvernon.org) Washington had arranged in 1771 to secretly inoculate his stepson John Parke Custis and went on to arrange the inoculation of his wife Martha, other family members and his slaves. He railed against the Act in Virginia banning inoculation.
A smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston in 1776 with talk that the British were deliberately spreading the disease in the city. Washington later began a system in which new recruits were inoculated with smallpox immediately after recruitment, so by the time they were ready for battle, they were immune.
So, whatever one’s political leanings, we should all know that vaccination and inoculation against biological threats is a time-honored and patriotic action to take.