Sunday, October 7, 2007

Transporting the smallpox vaccine

(I've been very busy over the last month or so and so didn't update this blog. I hope that's changing now so I can write more regularly.)

Tonight over dinner we were talking about which of us would get a flu shot this year. The conversation quickly turned to what vaccines were. I recounted to our kids the story of how Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine, how smallpox was eradicated, and why unlike the smallpox vaccine we need a flu shot every year.

Through all this, I'm a little ashamed to admit, I had forgotten the name of the smallpox vaccine's discoverer. So I did a quick search and immediately established it was Jenner. I proceeded to browse some of the results, and came across a note on bioterrorism which had this fascinating historical note.

Edward Jenner's original smallpox vaccine was actually the cowpox virus. This was great as long as you had a cowpox-infected cow nearby to get the vaccine. But how does one transport this vaccine?

Absenting cows with cowpox to provide material for inoculation or refrigeration to store and transport stocks of it, people would transfer the vaccine from one person to the next arm-to-arm.

And what is this arm-to-arm technique?

The Spanish brought smallpox vaccine to the New World this way. A group of orphans were recruited for the long voyage, and two children were vaccinated shortly before departure. When cowpox pustules developed on their arms the ship’s doctor would take material from their lesions and use it to vaccinate two more children, repeating this procedure each time new pustules formed in successive children until they reached Venezuela, with yet two more children providing an aliquot of active vaccine for people in South America.


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