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by William H. Benson

October 23, 2014

     Fierce opposition has met the slightest steps forward in humankind’s war upon any of the several viruses that inflict us. Fear of the unknown, religious persuasions, and lack of knowledge of the scientific method have each contributed to that opposition.

     For example, in Boston in 1721, another smallpox epidemic broke out. Cotton Mather, the pastor at the old North Church, had learned of inoculation as a means to prevent the disease, but he could convince only a single one of Boston’s several doctors, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, to try the procedure. For nearly a year, until May of 1722, Boylston inoculated hundreds, including Cotton’s son, Samuel.

     The other doctors were livid that Boylston was infecting people before they showed symptoms of the disease. The common people believed that inoculation was spreading smallpox among them, and the other ministers believed it wrong for Cotton to dabble in scientific experiments and “desert religious principles” and practices, such as prayer and fasting.

     The most vicious of Cotton’s critics though was James Franklin, owner and editor of a Boston newspaper, The New England Courant. He compared Cotton to a “peevish Mongrel,” and called him a “Baboon.” Month after month, James tore and scratched at Cotton in print. James’s younger brother, Benjamin, joined in and wrote humorous essays about an old busybody, a fictional woman named Silence Do-good, an obvious reference to Cotton Mather.

     By the end of the epidemic, in February of 1722, it was determined that smallpox had infected 5,889 persons in New England, “of whom 844 had died,” but only a few of those whom Dr. Boylston had inoculated died. Cotton Mather felt vindicated.

     As the years passed, the medical community came to accept inoculation with smallpox as a viable treatment, although a small percentage of those treated would catch the disease and then die. 

     In 1798, an English physician named Edward Jenner discovered that an inoculation with cowpox was less harmful than with smallpox. Jenner had noticed that those milkmaids who first suffered poxes on their hands were then immune to smallpox, and so he named his method vaccination, because the Latin word for cow is “vacca.”

     Doctors came to accept vaccination as the standard preventative in Europe and North America.

     Smallpox though continued to kill off millions in Asia and Africa. As recent as 1967, there were between ten and fifteen million people infected every year in thirty countries, and two million of those stricken died. It was then that the World Health Organization, established by the United Nations, decided to attack smallpox by a 100% vaccination policy, but officials soon discovered that those who were isolated, uneducated, and superstitious refused immunization.

     Because of the massive vaccination program though, cases were rare, and so officials of WHO then instituted a “surveillance and containment” policy. When notified of a case, they would rush in, isolate the stricken patient, vaccinate all those living within a mile, and then move village to village, house to house, and room to room, searching for any others stricken by the disease, and treat them the same. Thus, smallpox’s transmission chain was broken.

     By that formula India’s Smallpox Eradication Program defeated smallpox there. The last known case of smallpox occurred in May 1980 in Somalia. Humankind had conquered its most dreaded disease.

     Eight weeks ago, Dr. Peter Clement, working for WHO, traveled for eight hours over dirt roads to a village in Liberia, near the border with Guinea. He explained to the village’s chiefs, “Ebola is the enemy. If we don’t chase Ebola, it will kill us. You have to know Ebola to fight Ebola. Mobilize your people. Let’s get to know Ebola.”

     The people came up with a plan. “Ebola is a disease, not a curse, not a government plot. The sick must go to the clinic. Only officials will bury the dead. No more touching when greeting.”

     Although officials have not yet contained Ebola in west Africa, there is some good news. Last Friday, October 17, WHO officials announced that Senegal was now free of Ebola.

     Last week, the writer Eula Biss published her new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation. In it she takes issue with those who are “white, educated, and relatively wealthy” and because of fear refuse to vaccinate their children, because, they claim, there are toxins in the vaccine, that is unnatural and impure. Biss writes that this attitude is selfish, and that it “compromises herd immunity” and allows pathogens to spread. These anti-inoculators argue and rally as they did in Cotton Mather’s day.

     One parent who failed to immunize his son was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin Folger Franklin, “little Franky,” died of smallpox when he was four years old, not because Benjamin disapproved of inoculation, because by then he understood its merit. He had just forgotten to do it. Benjamin regretted that failing the rest of his life. On his son’s tombstone, he wrote, “The delight of all who knew him.”