Think H1N1 is Old News? The Original Innoculation Campaign

This week (January 10-16), as part of National Influenza Vaccination Week, the Center for Disease Control will launch a national campaign of events and information dissemination to encourage Americans to get vaccinated against the flu. This year, of course, the campaign includes a rousing campaign against H1N1, including podcasts, factsheets, PSAs, and a flyer of President Obama receiving his flu shot.

Despite the epic levels of hoopla, public health campaigns for immunization are not new.

The very first systematic inoculation campaign in the New World was fought against smallpox. Smallpox, also known as variola had been a worldwide plague for centuries and various efforts at inoculation had been attempted over the years. These included various efforts to introduce mild infections in healthy patients.

With the systematization of public health procedures came more formal campaigns to disseminate information on treating and preventing the disease.

In 1702, concerned about a possible outbreak of Smallpox in the city of Boston, Benjamin Elliot reprinted a typical pamphlet of information on the disease. Thomas Thacher had authored A Brief Rule to Guide the Common People of New-England How to Order Themselves & Theirs in the Small-pocks, or Measels following a previous epidemic in the city 1676-1677. The pamphlet outlines the disease’s causes, symptoms and treatment, as best understood at the time of publication.

However, epidemics would continue to resurface and a variety of efforts followed in response, at the urging of figures from Cotton Mather to George Washington.

The definitive event in the American campaign against Small pox came in 1800 with the entry into the field of Doctor Benjamin Waterhouse. A professor at Harvard’s new school of medicine, Waterhouse began championing the inoculation research of Dr. Edward Jenner of England. Jenner had discovered that controlled infection with a mild case of cowpox offered immunity against the more serious, related disease of smallpox.

Waterhouse began by testing the method on his own children and servants. Weeks later, he began widely publishing accounts of his success in preventing infection. The aggressive dissemination of Waterhouse’s writings and smallpox samples around the country prove a turning point, launching a century and more of efforts to eradicate the disease, including both government initiatives and public information campaigns.

Inoculation, enforced by the government in Europe, encountered greater obstacles in the freewheeling United States–made greater by reported infections with actual cases of smallpox. Harper’s weekly printed a sketch by Sol Eytinge, “Vaccinating the Baby,” on February 19, 1870, along with the following caption:

We trust the hint conveyed indirectly by this picture may not be lost upon families where this necessary precaution against a loathsome disease has been neglected. The sanitary superintendent of the Metropolitan District of New York, in a recent report, called attention to the fact that this disease has become fearfully prevalent throughout the West, especially in California, and that great precaution will be necessary to keep it from spreading through New York.

Eventually, the vaccine proponents could announce success. In the twentieth century, after worldwide vaccination campaigns the WHO finally declared the eradication of the disease in 1980, considered one of the major victories of modern medicine. Around that time, vaccination for smallpox also ended.


Emma Jacobs recently graduated from Columbia with a degree in history. She lives and works in New York City. Her website is http://historyradio.blogspot.com ...read more

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