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Celebrating 40 Years since the eradication of smallpox

Published: 07 May 2020

A.2.2 - Edward Jenner

As we celebrate 40 years since the eradication of smallpox worldwide, we reflect on the role St George’s played in treating and defeating the disease, and take a look at how far we have come in the treatment, diagnostics and vaccination of infectious diseases.  

Smallpox was a deadly disease that killed millions around the world each year. Before vaccination, smallpox attacked one person in every three and killed one in 12. In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed 300 million people and left many survivors severely scarred or blinded. To put this into current context, the R value (reproductive value or the average number of people an infected individual can expect to pass the disease onto) for smallpox has been estimated at 3.5-6, compared to SARS-CoV2 at 2.5, The success of the vaccination for the disease led to widespread use and smallpox was eventually eradicated in 1978.  

Smallpox is the only human disease ever to have been completely eradicated from the planet, a feat which would not have been possible without the work done by alumnus Edward Jenner to develop the first ever vaccine.  

Jenner noticed that milkmaids seemed to be immune to smallpox, usually only contracting its less-deadly relative, cowpox. This gave Jenner an idea, and when in 1796 he diagnosed cowpox in a milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes – who had caught the disease while milking a cow by the name of Blossom – he saw an opportunity.  

He took samples of pus from Sarah’s pocks and injected them into James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, who then developed cowpox. Following this, Jenner inoculated James with smallpox and, when the boy recovered after initially falling ill, he knew his theory of vaccination was proved. The success of this first vaccination (from ‘vacca’, the Latin for ‘cow’) led to widespread use of the treatment, and smallpox was eventually eradicated in 1978.  

Many years after Jenner’s development of the first smallpox vaccine, Professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine, Harold Lambert, diagnosed cases of smallpox at one of the UK’s last ‘fever hospitals’ - the Grove Fever Hospital - which used to stand on the site of St George’s Hospital. He also diagnosed the last imported case of smallpox in the South Western Fever and Smallpox Hospital in Stockwell. His testing kit can still be found in the St George’s, University of London Archives and Special Collections. 

Speaking about the eradication of smallpox and new vaccine development, Professor Julian Ma (Director of the Institute for Infection and Immunity) says, “It’s easy to forget that only 50 years ago, infectious diseases were common in UK and a major cause of death.  It was not uncommon for public areas to be closed due to the threat of an infectious disease like polio.  Through incredible advances in vaccine technologies, we hardly see infectious disease in the UK now, and infections barely register in our top 10 causes of death”.

Today, 40 years after the eradication of one devastating disease, the St George’s community is responding to the new Covid-19 pandemic. We are in a unique position to carry out essential scientific and clinical research into this new threat to global health. 

Our three research institutes are working to understand the immunology, virology and genetics of Covid-19. Our research at St George’s will inform advances in new diagnostics, new treatments and a vaccine to support the nation’s recovery and contribute towards international efforts to tackle the pandemic. 

Professor Ma adds, “Research into infectious diseases has moved on since Jenner’s day, and we recognise that early diagnosis and better treatments are just as important as developing a vaccine. And we understand that any solutions we develop have to be accessible and affordable by the global community".

To find out more about St George’s research into coronavirus, visit our website.  

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