Day 257. Killing smallpox and parasites

In April 2013 on April 26, 2013 at 10:02 pm


This is my small-pox vaccination card from 1973.

Leaving Canada for Australia at the age of 20 months, I was immunised because I was a travelling infant during the tail end of a global program aimed at eradicating smallpox.

Actually, mass vaccination was not the overall strategy which finally brought success in non-Western countries. Instead, in 1967 a process of ‘surveillance-containment’ was rolled out for the first time in Sierra Leone and operated locally by a young doctor called Donald Hopkins (under direction from Dr William Foege). The process involved actively seeking out new cases of small pox, and then rushing in to vaccinate contacts of the sick individual in wider and wider circles until it died out. Applying this approach ultimately defeated smallpox, which was declared officially eradicated by WHO in 1980.

At the age of 71, that Dr Hopkins fellow is currently still working in disease prevention, and was the subject of a New York Times Profiles in Science article written by Donald McNeil and published earlier this week.

Dr Hopkins’ target of choice is now Guinea worm disease, a parasitic infection once common in the rural poor and still persisting in pockets of Africa.

McNeil writes of the disease:

People become infected when they drink from ponds containing tiny freshwater crustaceans, known as copepods, that themselves have swallowed microscopic worm larvae. The larvae escape being digested by either the crustacean or the human, and grow inside the body to about a yard long. They then migrate to the skin — usually in a foot, but sometimes a hand, a breast or even an eye socket. Then they exude a burning acid to create a blister, which they burst through. As soon as the victim dips the inflamed area in cooling water, the worm (described by Dr. Hopkins as “a giant uterus”) squirts out millions of larvae, starting the cycle anew.

So disgusting, so fascinating!

But don’t let the horror scare you off. McNeil’s article is highly readable and a lovely story of a man committed to helping humanity. And ignoring the idea of retirement.

  1. In 1995 I was in my final year of specialty training at the then Royal Brisbane Hospital. Researchers in the Queensland Institute of Medical Research were using pox viruses. I got to vaccinate them. It was mainly because I was old enough to have been vaccinated myself.
    On a tangent, with the exception of vaccination for vaccinia (and therefore variola) I prefer the word immunise. Until a few iterations ago, the Australian Immunisation Handbook had a short paragraph explaining the difference between vaccination and immunisation. So many people use the terms interchangeably now, no one cares (except me).

  2. Hi Gary,
    Where you immunised in Australia?
    And I’d love to see the paragraph which explained the difference between the two terms – do you still have an old copy of the Handbook?
    I love a good reason to choose a term properly 🙂

  3. […] for Life. 365 which is a post a day blog by an Australian scientist and writer Sarah Keenihan. On Day 257. Killing smallpox and parasites Sarah about her vaccination in Canada before coming to live in Australia. I made a comment about […]

  4. […] comment from Gary Lum on my Killing smallpox and parasites blog post brought up the question of which term is […]

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