How was the smallpox vaccine developed?
Smallpox is thought to have originated from northeast Africa approximately 10,000 BC; skin lesions resembling smallpox have been reported on the faces of mummies from the time of Egyptian Dynasties. It was first introduced to Europe between the fifth and seventh centuries, hugely affecting the development of Western civilisation. The virus has had a major impact on world history – in the 20th century alone, it was responsible for approximately 300-500 million deaths.
Methods of variolation – purposely injecting an individual with smallpox matter to protect them from severe infection – was first practiced in China in the 10th century, and had varying degrees of success. Some individuals developed immunity to smallpox, whilst others contracted the disease and died or became the source of a new epidemic. Despite this, by the early 1700s, this method of inoculation had become widespread.
Edward Jenner’s work was the first scientific investigation and attempt at controlling smallpox by vaccination. In 1796, he developed the world’s first vaccination by inoculating a healthy 8-year-old boy with the pus from a cowpox lesion. He then exposed the boy to smallpox six weeks later and found the boy was unaffected. This discovery then laid the foundation for the development of modern vaccinology and immunology. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, huge advances began in the understanding of infectious diseases and development of vaccines.
In 1967, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a global immunisation campaign against smallpox and by 1979, it was declared that smallpox had been eradicated globally.
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