Vaccines Can’t End Pandemics Alone—And We’ve Known That Since We Eradicated Smallpox


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President Thomas Jefferson in 1806 wrote a letter to English physician Edward Jenner. Ten years earlier, Jenner had intentionally infected a boy with cowpox, in order to protect him against the much more terrifying smallpox disease. It worked. Jenner gathered more evidence, and two years later he published his Inquiry into the Variolae vaccinae known as the Cow Pox. News traveled across the Atlantic, and Jefferson was among the first Americans to recognize the revolutionary potential of vaccination. He praised Jenner in lavish terms: “Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility.” In fact, Jefferson foresaw an end to a disease that was then the most deadly and most feared affliction in much of the world. “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”
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Jefferson was visionary—but too optimistic. Mortality from smallpox declined precipitously as vaccination spread, but progress stalled and at times reversed in the late 19th century. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, there were still thousands of cases of smallpox a year in the United States, and not until the late 1920s was the disease completely eradicated from the country. Globally, progress was even more halting. A massive global health crusade in the 1960s and 1970s finally realized Jefferson’s vision of rendering the disease a thing of the past. The last naturally occurring case of smallpox occurred in 1977—171 years after Jefferson’s letter to Jenner imagined a world without the disease.

The example of smallpox elimination is one of many that reminds us the control of infectious disease requires both technical and social adaptations. Jenner’s discovery of vaccination ranks as one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. But technical solutions on their own are never enough. In the U.S., the spread of vaccination required an effective communication campaign,…



Source : time


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