Smallpox is an acute and infectious disease caused by a virus. It is characterized by high fever and large sores on the body that leaves scars. The disease is estimated to have killed up to one-third of its victims. Those who are not killed are left with pock-marked skin or even blind. The name “smallpox” is coined in the 15th century to distinguish it from the “great pox,” better known as syphilis. However, smallpox’s history on earth is believed to date back thousands of years.
In 1980 the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declares smallpox eradicated. After ten years and $300 million, used on a global vaccination program, the disease is gone. The last recorded death from this disease is in Somalia in 1977.
In Ireland, the spread of smallpox from the 1600s onward inspires dread. Ireland’s poverty and ignorance of infectious disease, at the time, sees typhoid and dysentery ravage communities. Between 1661 and 1746 smallpox is believed to be the cause of 20% of all deaths in Dublin and a third of all children deaths in the area. This highly infectious disease does not discriminate as the rich, as well as the poor, are badly affected.
By the 18th century, hope emerges and an inoculation technique is found. Since the 10th century, the Chinese had been inoculating people, by using a small dose of the disease. This technique does not arrive in Europe for almost 800 years. This technique is first tried on prisoners in Cork Jail in 1721, presumably against their will. Four years later five children in Dublin voluntarily receive the inoculation on August 26, 1725.
Over the years this technique shows its effectiveness. The rich begin to infest and inoculate their families. Throughout the 18th century, as the disease has periodic epidemics, the richer families are less affected. By the middle of the 18th century, the inoculation is in widespread use. The South Infirmary, in Cork, even initiates a program to inoculate the poor.
Sadly, of course, the unscrupulous see an opportunity to make money as people queue up to receive the treatment. In Donegal in 1781, all but one child of a group of 52 die when an unqualified practitioner supposedly inoculates the group.
While inroads are being made against smallpox, with the emergence of the Great Famine in Ireland (1845–49), the disease returns with a vengeance. This devastates even those who had found a way to make ends meet. Smallpox means that even if you survive the disease you will be unable to work for some time and many are pauperized by the lack of income and die eventually.
As Ireland emerges from the poverty and devastation of the Great Hunger, during the 1870s over 7,000 die in Ireland from the disease. It is only from the 1880s that smallpox becomes more earnestly eradicated in Ireland. By the 1910s the death rate is down to just 65 people. From 1901 to 1910 almost 1 million Irish are inoculated.
The last outbreak of smallpox in Ireland is in 1903. In Dublin, there are found to be 256 cases. Sadly elsewhere around the world even up to the 1960s smallpox is rampant, taking up to two million lives per year and leaving millions more disfigured and blind.
Thankfully by the 1980s, the WHO’s world vaccine program has done its work and now the world is free of this disease which plagued the earth for thousands of years.
(From: “On this day: In 1725 Dublin children received the first smallpox vaccination” by IrishCentral staff, http://www.irishcentral.com, August 26, 2020)