Ear: Smallpox

From the Saturday, April 9, 1887 edition of The Daily Morning Astorian:

• There is no probability of smallpox up this way, yet its presence in California suggests the advisability of guarding against its possible appearance here by being vaccinated.

Note: Even in 1887, people were aware of the importance of vaccination to prevent epidemics of diseases such as smallpox.

The first smallpox epidemic in this region apparently took place between 1775 and 1780, among the indigenous people, when European explorers and fur traders sailed in, most likely bringing the disease with them.

The results were deadly, with an estimated loss of 30% of the native population along the Northwest coast. The survivors were often disfigured by the disease, and some were blinded.

When the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along the lower Columbia River in 1806, only 250 members of the Clatsop tribe — once thriving in the region for millennia — remained. The rest had been wiped out by smallpox, and other diseases for which they had no immunity, that were brought into the area.

Yet ironically, in 1777, during the American Revolution, an early form of smallpox inoculation was already available on the East Coast. In fact, Gen. George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, decreed mandatory variolation (live smallpox virus introduced via incision) for all soldiers who had not already survived a smallpox infection. This usually caused a minor occurrence of the disease, followed by lifelong immunity.

In 1813, the U.S. Vaccine Agency was established by Congress; in 1885, the state of Massachusetts passed the first U.S. law mandating vaccination for schoolchildren; and in 1990, coming full circle, routine smallpox vaccination of U.S. military recruits was discontinued. (bit.ly/smpox01, bit.ly/smpox02, bit.ly/smpox03, historyofvaccines.org/timeline)

Elleda Wilson is an editorial assistant for The Astorian and author of the award-winning In One Ear community column. Contact her at 971-704-1718 or ewilson@dailyastorian.com.

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