Recognizing Old Vaccine Scars

Do you have a scar on your arm and you aren’t sure why it is there?

Having a smallpox vaccine scar makes you a part of history.
Having a smallpox vaccine scar makes you a part of history.

Is it from the smallpox vaccine?

Recognizing Old Vaccine Scars

Classically, there are two vaccines that can leave a scar – the ones that protect us against smallpox and tuberculosis.

“BCG scar is a surrogate marker of vaccination and an important index in the vaccination program.”

Dhanawade et al on Scar formation and tuberculin conversion following BCG vaccination in infants: A prospective cohort study

And there are a few easy ways to tell if you have a smallpox scar.

When were you born? Remember, the smallpox vaccine hasn’t been used in the United States since the early 1970s and its use stopped everywhere in 1986.

And where were you born?

The BCG (bacille Calmette-Guerin) vaccine, on the other hand, is still in use in many countries, and is given at birth to prevent tuberculosis disease, including meningitis and disseminated tuberculosis. It isn’t routinely used in the United States though “because of the low risk of infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the variable effectiveness of the vaccine against adult pulmonary TB, and the vaccine’s potential interference with tuberculin skin test reactivity.”

Do you have a vaccine scar on your arm?
Do you have a vaccine scar on your arm? Photo by Earl Hershfield

In general though:

  • the BCG vaccine scar has a raised center
  • the smallpox vaccine scar is depressed, with lines that radiate to the edges

Complicating matters is the fact that you can have multiple scars from each vaccine…

“In 1972, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization in Canada recommended that routine immunization of infants for smallpox be stopped. Very few Canadians born after 1972 have been immunized against smallpox. Those, like me, who were immunized prior to that date have little or no immunity left. Nothing, but a small scar as testimony to a grand global achievement.”

Diane Kelsall on A Small Scar

Do you have any vaccine scars?

More on Recognizing Old Vaccine Scars

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