Wednesday, 3 March 2010

“Oh, my dear, my darling Elizabeth has the smallpox.”

The Dresskeeper tries to highlight some of the problems people faced during the 17th century, and disease was an issue than affected everyone – rich or poor.

So what is smallpox? Well, it’s a virus, which according to the World Health Organisation, starts off with symptoms a lot like the flu, but is then followed by a rash and blisters (or pustules). These start on the face and quickly spread everywhere else. Smallpox still is one of the most dangerous and feared diseases in the world, but a few hundred years ago, the disease killed around 30% of those infected. If you didn’t die you would probably end up with scars - almost 80% who survived sported them. And if the scars weren’t enough, you might also be blinded.

In 1967 the World Health Organisation began a programme to eradicate Smallpox completely around the globe and by 1980, they had managed it.

However, during Amelia’s time, and in the case of her poor friend Elizabeth, smallpox was impossible to treat, and there were no vaccinations or preventative medicines. The worst part of it was that a person could be infected for many days and not even realise it. It was easy to see how it spread. That fever could last for around 10 days and by the time the worst of the symptoms would become visible – the pox – that person could have infected so many others. And in a crowded city like London, the virus spread like wildfire.

Finally, in the 1700s, medical professionals began to consider immunization after noticing that a person who had survived smallpox could not be re-infected.

Interestingly, the idea of immunisation was controversial. An article written in 1750 for Gentlemen’s Magazine highlights the arguments against inoculation. For example, it was supposedly against God, as he is the “sovereign of life, and he can preserve us”. A trust in God was considered enough in the fight against the disease. Another argument against immunisation was that giving a child a jab took away their free will in some way, because they were those “who cannot judge for themselves.” And yet another argument was that it was unlawful because “it may bring danger without their knowledge”. In other words, if a person was infected with smallpox for medical purposes, they couldn’t be sure if they carried the disease, and therefore it they might infect others.

Luckily, this article was written by a man named David Some, who was in favour of the jabs. In his view, there were two options – stay out of everyone’s way all the time (obviously impractical) or immunise. He successfully argued immunisation was the safest way to save lives.

Then, in the latter half of the 18th century Edward Jenner noticed that people like milkmaids did not seem to get smallpox - instead they were only infected by the much milder cow pox. He carried out an experiment on an eight-year-old boy named James Phippes. In a gross but necessary act, he took pus out of the pustule from a cowpox sufferer and rubbed it into a cut on the boy’s arm. The boy did not get smallpox.

Unfortunately, not everyone believed in his experiment and the claim that the boy would never get smallpox, so more proof was needed. Jenner continued to try his experiments on other children, which didn’t go down too well with 18th century ‘do-gooders’. Nevertheless, Jenner eventually convinced the powers that be in the benefits of his work, and a vaccine against smallpox was introduced.

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