Smallpox: the most successful vaccination ever

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The world has a lot to thank Edward Jenner for. The English scientist is credited with discovering the smallpox vaccine, then the first in the world.

As a 13-year-old, he observed that farm hands and milkmaids who contracted the less severe cowpox from cows were not afflicted during outbreaks of smallpox.

In 1796, as a young trained doctor, he took the fluid from a cowpox pustule on a sufferer's hand and inoculated an eight-year-old boy. The boy was then exposed to smallpox but failed to contract the disease. By 1800 about 100,000 people had been vaccinated worldwide.

After World War Two, the World Health Organisation tackled the most lethal virus in the world, which had a mortality rate of about 30 per cent. By this time North America, western Europe and the Antipodes were free of the disease, but outbreaks still occurred in Africa and India.

Thanks to a massive, worldwide hunt for outbreaks and a thorough vaccination programme, the disease was eradicated in ten years, in probably the greatest triumph enjoyed by modern medicine....

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