Category: History of Vaccines

Vaccination Tragedies are Rare

Vaccines work to prevent at least 2 to 3 million deaths each year worldwide.

Tragically, either because of errors or contamination, vaccines can sometimes actually cause people to get sick.

This can happen when health workers:

  • use a reconstituted vaccine after six hours – live vaccines can quickly become contaminated if they are kept and used for too long a time
  • mixup diluents – in addition to using the wrong diluent vaccination tragedies can occur when a dangerous medication is used instead of a vaccine’s standard diluent
  • improperly handle vaccines – breaking the cold chain
  • a vaccine is given to someone with a true medical contraindication

Fortunately, these situations are rare.

History of Vaccination Tragedies

With billions of doses of vaccines being given each year, it is likely not surprising that we see some problems. But when many of those vaccines are being given to kids, even one mishap, especially if it leads to life-threatening complications, is too many.

That’s why many safe guards have been put in place in the manufacturer and distribution of modern vaccines, so that we don’t see these types of vaccine tragedies:

  • the Cutter Incident, when, in 1955, at least 56 people developed polio and 5 children died after being vaccinated with inactivated polio vaccine that was poorly manufactured by Cutter Laboratories and still contained live polio virus
  • hepatitis-contaminated yellow fever vaccines – some lots of yellow fever vaccines used in the military in 1942 were unintentionally contaminated with the hepatitis B virus
  • the Lubeck Disaster – 75 children died and others got tuberculosis in 1929 Germany after there was a mixup between the BCG vaccine and the strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis that causes tuberculosis. The BCG vaccine was supposed to be made with a weakened strain of Mycobacterium bovis bacteria instead.
  • the Bundaberg incident – 12 children died in Australia in 1928 after being given contaminated diphtheria vaccine from a multidose vial without preservative
  • tetanus contaminated smallpox vaccine in the 1890s and early 20th century

Although vaccines are much safer now, some rare incidents still occur.

Fifteen infants died and 75 children got sick in Syria in 2014 after they received a neuromuscular blocking agent, atracurium, instead of the measles vaccine they were supposed to get. How? The measles vaccine that was being used is mixed with a diluent, but instead of using the proper diluent, the health worker unintentionally used a bottle of atracurium instead.

In 2015, at least two kids died and 29 got sick in Chiapas, Mexico, among 52 children who were vaccinated. The children were reportedly given a BCG vaccine, the rotavirus vaccine, and/or a hepatitis B vaccine that day. However, the only vaccine that all of the sick children received in common was the hepatitis B vaccine. Since 130,000 doses from the same batch of vaccines had been given in the area, it was not thought to be a manufacturing problem or widespread issue. It was instead bacterial contamination of hepatitis B vaccine vials at that one clinic.

Fifteen children died in 2017 in a village in South Sudan after a poorly trained team that wasn’t adhering to WHO immunization safety standards used the same syringe to reconstitute measles vaccines over a four day period. They also didn’t keep the vaccine vials refrigerated.

“A single reconstitution syringe was used for multiple vaccine vials for the entire four days of the campaign instead of being discarded after single use. The reuse of the reconstitution syringe causes it to become contaminated which in turn contaminates the measles vaccine vials and infects the vaccinated children.”

Statement regarding findings of joint investigation of 15 deaths of children in Nachodokopele village, Kapoeta East County in South Sudan

As you can imagine, the conditions that led to these tragedies aren’t present when most kids get vaccinated.

Even in developing countries, most children get vaccinated by people adhering to WHO immunization safety standards. Why did they happened then? Both Syria and South Sudan have been rocked by war for years, leading to a breakdown in the ability to provide routine health care, even as basic as getting kids vaccinated. And Comunidad La Pimienta, Simojovel, Chiapas is a very poor part of southern Mexico.

These kinds of tragedies aren’t going to happen at your pediatrician’s office, as they don’t even have drugs like atracurium.

What Happened in Samoa?

Two toddlers died after being vaccinated at Safotu Hospital in Samoa.
Two toddlers died after being vaccinated at Safotu Hospital in Samoa.

In Samoa, four years after the deaths of the children in Syria, we are once again hearing about reports of deaths after kids were vaccinated with the MMR vaccine.

Two children in Samoa, both one-year-olds, died within minutes  of being vaccinated on the same day in the same hospital on the island of Savai’i.

Not surprisingly, as health officials investigate the cause, use of the MMR vaccine had been suspended in Samoa.

So what happened?

“Until the investigations have been completed and reported on we cannot say what did happen.

However, given the batch of vaccine involved had been in use in that country since August last year, and given the same batch of vaccine has been used in South American countries and the Caribbean island nations without incident, it seems unlikely that there was anything wrong with the vaccine.

The reports from the parents of the children affected on Friday indicate the reactions occurred within minutes after vaccination. This would preclude a response to the vaccine viruses as this takes at least a week. While anaphylaxis occurs within minutes and can be fatal when not treated the odds of seeing this twice in a day at the same place, given a chance of 1 in a million doses, is literally astronomical.”

Dr. Helen Petousis Harrison on What happened in Samoa?

Since it happened so quickly, it sounds like it could have been a mix-up with the diluent, as happened in Syria. A five dose vial of MMR is used in Samoa, which means that unlike premixed vaccines, it does have to be mixed with a diluent.

What about contamination? It is known that vaccine vials can be contaminated with Staphylococcus bacteria if they are mishandled. Although Staphylococcus bacteria can directly cause infections, they can also release a toxin that can cause toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

Considering how quickly these children got died though (within minutes), it isn’t likely that the vaccines became contaminated with Staphylococcus toxins. There have been reports of TSS following vaccination in the past, usually with vaccines that don’t use preservatives, but symptoms typically develop over four to 24 hours.

“This particular vaccine batch lot arrived to Samoa in August 2017 and has been in use since then. The same vaccine batch lot used in Samoa is also in use in a number of South American and Caribbean countries (Belize, Ecuador, St. Vincent, Trinidad Tobago, Chile, Aruba, Dutch Antilles, St. Kitts & Nevis and Cuba) with no reports of adverse events from those countries.”

Government of Samoa – Ministry of Health Press Statement

Could this be related to what happened to two other children in Samoa who had died after getting their MMR vaccines?

Almost certainly not. Those children, siblings, died years earlier, one in 2015 and the other in 2017. Neither died immediately after being vaccinated and there are reports that they may have had some kind of an immunodeficiency syndrome that contributed to their deaths.

“A number of media outlets are already covering these tragic events, speculating on the cause of death before the investigation is completed, and the stories have been picked up by the anti-vaccination movement.”

Government of Samoa – Ministry of Health Press Statement

That some folks would use these rare tragedies to scare parents from vaccinating and protecting their kids is shameful. But that’s the modern anti-vaccine movement

What to Know About Vaccination Tragedies

Kids shouldn’t get sick or die after getting vaccinated. Fortunately, they rarely do, except in extreme circumstances that can make it more likely for errors to occur.

More on Vaccination Tragedies

The Catholic Church and Vaccines

We hear a lot about the Catholic Church and vaccines.

The Catholic Church teaches that it is lawful to get vaccinated to protect
The Catholic Church teaches that it is lawful to get vaccinated to protect “our children, public health, and the common good.” The National Catholic Bioethics Center

Maybe it is because Pope Francis led a polio vaccine campaign when he visited Mexico.

Pope Francis helped launch a polio vaccine campaign when he visited Mexico in 2016.
Pope Francis helped launch a polio vaccine campaign when he visited Mexico in 2016.

Or because Pope Francis thanked members of the Rotary International during an Audience at the Vatican, where the Pope “emphasized the importance of vaccinations against polio and urged Rotary to continue.”

History of the Catholic Church and Vaccines

Pope Francis isn’t the first Pope to promote vaccination.

Way back in the early 1800s, Pope Pius VII said the smallpox vaccine was “a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence.”

But wasn’t there an anti-vaccine pope too?

Some claimed that Pope Leo XII had said that “Whoever allows himself to be vaccinated ceases to be a child of God. Smallpox is a judgment of God, the vaccination is a challenge toward heaven.

He didn’t say it though – the anti-vax edict from the Pope was imaginary!

There was no anti-vaccine pope.

Endorsement of vaccination by the Catholic Church had started long before the smallpox vaccine. As early as the 1720s, Jesuits were inoculating Indians in the Amazon against smallpox.

Other noteworthy events in the history of the Catholic Church related to vaccines include:

  • 1757 – Pope Benedict XIV was inoculated against smallpox
  • 1780s – introduction of public vaccinations by the archbishop of Bamberg, Germany
  • 1821 – Council of Vaccination
  • 1800s – priests routinely led processions of people to get vaccinated against smallpox
  • 1862 – Catholic missionaries vaccinated the Quwutsun in the Pacific Northwest

Sean Phillips, in examining the records of the Osler Library, has also found “a story of close cooperation between clergy and the state from the earliest stages of the vaccine in France…” That was important, because when smallpox epidemics were raging, the clergy functioned “as a conduit between the medical community and the majority of cities, towns, and communes in France throughout the nineteenth century.”

Vaccines and Abortion

Of course, one of the main reasons that vaccines and the Catholic Church comes up at all is because of abortion.

The Pontifical Academy for Life reaffirmed the "lawfulness" of using vaccines to protect children and those around them.
The Pontifical Academy for Life reaffirmed the “lawfulness” of using vaccines to protect children and those around them.

What does abortion have to do with vaccines?

While much of what you hear about abortion and vaccines isn’t true, some of it is:

  • Vaccines do not contain aborted fetal tissue.
  • Some vaccines are made in cell lines that originated from fetuses that were aborted over 40 years ago.
  • These vaccines are made in descendent cells from either the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines, which have been duplicated over and over again and are grown independently. So, “it is important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted child.”
  • The descendent cells don’t remain in the final vaccine after it has been purified.

It should be clear now why they say that these vaccines are said to have a “distant association with abortion.”

“For its part, Catholic social teaching entails a duty to vaccinate in order to protect the vulnerable.”

Paul J. Carson on Catholic Social Teaching and the Duty to Vaccinate

And why it is said that Catholics are “morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion” and that “it should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.”

“Since there is no Catholic teaching that the use of these vaccines is sinful, schools cannot allow Catholic parents to claim a religious exemption from the requirement of immunization.”

National Catholic Bioethics Center on Vaccines and Exemptions Granted by Schools

Catholics can seek an alternative vaccine when available and “register a complaint with the manufacturer of the products as an acceptable form of conscientious objection,” but the The National Catholic Bioethics Center states that “there is no moral obligation to register such a complaint in order to use these vaccines.”

Not only are we morally free to get vaccinated and vaccinate our kids, but the National Catholic Bioethics Center says that parents actually “have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them.”

What to Know About the Catholic Church and Vaccines

From measles to HPV, the Catholic Church recommends that your family be vaccinated and protected.

More About the Catholic Church and Vaccines

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The Hospital Rock Engravings of Farmington, Connecticut

Vaccines are a lot safer than they used to be in the old days.

No, I’m not talking about the “crude brew” that was the original DTP vaccine.

This older vaccine used more antigens than the DTaP vaccine that replaced it, so could cause more side effects. Even before that though, there was less oversight of vaccine manufacturers in the early 20th century. This could lead to vaccines that were contaminated or which simply didn’t work.

That certainly was a problem with the early smallpox vaccine, which is typically considered to be the most dangerous vaccine ever routinely used.

Variolation and Smallpox

But even before the smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796, we had variolation.

While the smallpox vaccine involved the cowpox virus, variolation actually infected someone with smallpox. The idea was to give the person a milder form by exposing them to a weaker, or attenuated, form of the virus.

They got this weakened virus from the smallpox scabs of someone who had already recovered and:

  • blowing dried smallpox scabs into their nose
  • applying pus from smallpox scabs to a small puncture wound on their skin

Variolation worked, giving the person immunity to smallpox – if they survived.

Unfortunately, about 1 to 3% of people who underwent variolation died.

And people who had recently undergone variolation could be contagious, leading to smallpox epidemics.

So why did folks undergo variolation if they had a chance of dying from the procedure?

It’s simple.

A natural smallpox infection was so much more deadly. Up to 30% of people who got smallpox died, and many people eventually got caught up in the regular smallpox epidemics that plagued people in the pre-vaccine era.

The Hospital Rock Engravings of Farmington, Connecticut

We don’t have to worry about smallpox anymore.

Well, not about natural smallpox infections, since smallpox was eradicated back in 1980.

And there are many other diseases that we get vaccinated against, with it being extremely easy to get that protection, especially compared to what folks did in the old days.

Do you know how far folks went to make variolation safer?

“Every year, thousands undergo this operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England…”
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu On Small Pox in Turkey (1717)

They actually went to smallpox hospitals to get vaccinated, remaining in quarantine for up to three weeks so that they wouldn’t get others sick.

In Farmington, Connecticut, two doctors established the Todd-Wadsworth Smallpox Hospital and had a lot of success with variolation.

Patients were no longer starved before inoculation, and many had begun to doubt the efficacy and safety of vomiting, sweats, purges, mercurials (toxic mercury salts such as calomel), and bleeding which had previously weakened both inoculees and those who “took the pox in the natural way.”

Charles Leach, MD on Hospital Rock

There, up to 20 patients at a time stayed in quarantine to get variolated, as a smallpox epidemic hit nearby Boston.

Patients engraved their name on Hospital Rock in the late 1700s near Farmington.
Patients engraved their name on Hospital Rock in the late 1700s near Farmington. Photo by Keith Wilkens

Between 1792 and 1794, many who got variolated wrote their names on what is now known as Hospital Rock.

“Many have supposed that the names on this rock were those who had did of the small-pox, but this is a great mistake. Every name on the rock is that of a person who was living when the name was placed there. Norris Stanley lived to own ships which were captured in the war of 1812 by Algerian pirates and still later to receive from the United States an indeminity therefor amounting to a large sum.”

James Shepard on The Small Pox Hospital Rock

The nearby town of Durham seemed to go a different way.

Instead of an inoculation hospital, they had a pest house to quarantine folks with natural smallpox infections.

Adding to the history of smallpox in Connecticut – a smallpox burying ground in Guilford.

Why wasn’t variolation popular everywhere? Folks didn’t have to wait for the first vaccine for the anti-vaccine movement to get started.

What to Know About Smallpox and the Hospital Rock Engravings

Hundreds of people got safely inoculated against smallpox and left their names on Hospital Rock near Farmington, Connecticut just before Edward Jenner discovered the first smallpox vaccine.

More on the Hospital Rock Engravings

Grave Reminders of Life Before Vaccines

Need a reminder of just how serious vaccine preventable diseases can be?

Don’t remember the pre-vaccine era?

That could be why some folks are so quick to think that skipping or delaying vaccines is a safe option for their kids.

Vaccines are necessary.

Without them, we will see even more outbreaks of measles, mumps, and pertussis and kids will continue to die of rabies, tetanus, and other now vaccine-preventable diseases.

The South Park Cemetary was begun in 1891 during a diphtheria epidemic.
A diphtheria cemetery in Wyoming.

Isolation hospitals and pest houses were commonly used to quarantine folks with smallpox.
Isolation hospitals and pest houses were commonly used to quarantine folks with smallpox and other now vaccine-preventable diseases.

Even mild smallpox, as depicted on this WHO Smallpox Recognition Card, included flu like symptoms, a few weeks of pustules, and then waiting for the lesions to scab over...
Even mild smallpox, as depicted on this WHO Smallpox Recognition Card, included flu like symptoms, a few weeks of pustules, and then waiting for the lesions to scab over…

People continued to die of smallpox well into the 20th century, even though an effective vaccine was developed in 1796.
People continued to die of smallpox well into the 20th century, even though an effective vaccine was developed in 1796.

In the pre-vaccine era, we had outbreaks of polio, and other, now vaccine-preventable diseases.
Outbreaks of polio would once isolate entire towns, as parents feared their kids would get sick too.

Fight Polio Poster
When was the last time you saw a child with polio?

Before wide use of the Hib and Prevnar vaccines, infants with fever would routinely get spinal taps and you would hope for clear fluid (cloudy fluid could be a sign of a bacterial infection).
Before wide use of the Hib and Prevnar vaccines, younger infants with fever would routinely need spinal taps and you would hope for clear fluid (cloudy fluid could be a sign of a Hib or Strep pneumo infection).

In the pre-vaccine era, Hib caused epiglottitis, meningitis, and pneumonia - all life-threatening diseases that are now prevented by the Hib vaccine.
In the pre-vaccine era, Hib caused epiglottitis, meningitis, and pneumonia – all life-threatening diseases that are now prevented by the Hib vaccine.

Before the 1990s, when the Hib vaccine available, hospitals had an epiglottitis team on call and always available.
Before the 1990s, when the Hib vaccine available, hospitals had an epiglottitis team on call and always available.

News of the Newark kids going to Paris to get Pasteur's rabies vaccine made the front page of the New York Times.
In 1885, several boys from Newark went all of the way to Paris to get Pasteur’s new rabies vaccine, as the disease had always been fatal up until that time.

Even if they survive, kids can lose fingers, toes, or even arms and legs to meningococcemia.
Even if they survive, kids can lose fingers, toes, or even arms and legs to meningococcemia.

Roald Dahl's daughter died of measles in 1962, the year before the development of the first measles vaccine.
Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles in 1962, the year before the development of the first measles vaccine.

Nationwide, at least 123 people died in the United States during a large measles epidemic from 1989 to 1991, during a time that we had good sanitation, nutrition, and medical care.
Nationwide, at least 123 people died in the United States during large measles epidemics from 1989 to 1991, a time when we had good sanitation, nutrition, and medical care, but some folks weren’t vaccinated and we weren’t yet giving a second dose of MMR.

A papilloma caused by HPV on the vocal cords of a child with recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.
A papilloma caused by HPV on the vocal cords of a child with recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. (CC BY 4.0)

You don't have to go back to the pre-vaccine era to know that pertussis kills.
You don’t have to go back to the pre-vaccine era to know that pertussis kills. Ten infants died in 2010 in California from pertussis infections.

We should never forget what life was like before vaccines.

We should know that vaccine-preventable diseases were rarely mild, natural immunity comes at a cost, and that those who died from smallpox, diphtheria, measles, and polio aren’t around to talk about their experiences on Facebook (survivorship bias).

We should never forget that vaccine-preventable diseases were once big killers, and the only reason some folks have grown to fear the side effects of vaccines more than the diseases they prevent, is because we don’t see those diseases very much any more. If more people skip or delay getting vaccinated, we will though.

immunization-program-stages
As more people are vaccinated and diseases disappear, they forget how bad those diseases are, skip or delay getting their vaccines, and trigger outbreaks. Photo by WHO

Vaccines are safe and vaccines work.

Get vaccinated and protected.

Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases belong in the past.

What to Know About Life Before Vaccines

Forgetting the pre-vaccine era and the benefits of vaccines makes folks susceptible to anti-vaccine talking points and scares them away from vaccinating and protecting their kids.

More on Remembering Life Before Vaccines

Quarantine Signs for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

If everyone breezed through vaccine-preventable diseases so easily back in the pre-vaccine era, then why were so many folks held under quarantine?

Quarantine Sign

Vaccine-preventable diseases have always been known to be dangerous and life-threatening.

If they were once thought of as a way of life, it was only because there was no way to avoid them!

As someone with an uncle who developed severe paralytic polio disease a few years before the first vaccine was developed, I can tell you that these diseases were no walk in the park.

Still, while quarantines are helpful to control disease outbreaks, they clearly aren’t enough. That’s evident by the way that vaccines were used in Leicester to control smallpox, even though some folks say it was all due to quarantines. It wasn’t.

How long would quarantine last?

Usually through at least one incubation period for the disease.

Quarantine Signs
Smallpox quarantine sign A Board of Health quarantine poster warning that the premises are contaminated by smallpox.
Diphtheria quarantine sign. Diphtheria quarantine sign.
Polio quarantine sign Polio quarantine sign.
In the pre-vaccine era, we had outbreaks of polio, and other, now vaccine-preventable diseases. Whooping cough quarantine sign.
Unvaccinated children exposed to measles are quarantined for at least 21 days. Mumps quarantine sign
Chickenpox quarantine sign Rubella quarantine sign.

Have you ever seen any of these quarantine signs?

If so, have you seen any of them lately?

That’s because vaccines work.

What to Know About Quarantine Signs for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

In the pre-vaccine era, quarantines were the only way to try and help stop many diseases from spreading in the community.

More on Quarantine Signs for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Who Was John Birch?

It is well known that the anti-vaccination movement is as old as the history of vaccines itself.

John Birch (B) and the other anti-vaccine heroes of the day on their way to fight the vaccination monster.
John Birch (B) and the other anti-vaccine heroes of the day on their way to fight the vaccination monster.

Don’t believe me?

Soon after Edward Jenner had developed his vaccine, in addition to simply convincing people that he had come up with a method of preventing small pox that was better than inoculation, he had to overcome those who were dead set against the idea of vaccination.

“Do not the men, the heroes—who first dared to stand forth to arrest the progress, and stop the fatal havoc of this most dreadful and destructive monster, and at length have bravely subdued and put him to flight with all his mighty host, merit an obelisk created to their fame, with their names inscribed upon it, in indelible characters, to be held in grateful remembrance through all future generations?

And are not these names Moseley, Rowley, Birch, Squirrel, Lipscomb?”

The Vaccination Monster

Among them was John Birch.

Arthur Allen, in his book, Vaccine, calls John Birch one of “Jenner’s earliest foes.”

Who Was John Birch?

John Birch believed that he had serious reasons to object to Jenner's smallpox vaccine.
John Birch believed that he had serious reasons to object to Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.

John Birch worked among the medical households of King George III’s children.

Specifically, he was the “Surgeon extraordinary to the Prince of Wales” at Spring-gardens. This is in contrast to the “Physicians in ordinary” that were on the regular staff of the British Royal Household and were in regular attendance.

And he believed that he had such “serious reasons” to object to Jenner’s smallpox vaccine that he wrote a report about it in 1804, which secured his place in anti-vaccine history.

Why was he against Jenner’s small pox vaccine?

His main argument was that “Inoculation, so perfectly understood, and so successfully managed as it was, ought not be abandoned for a mere Experiment…”

He left out the part that he made a lot of money inoculating patients against small pox. He also treated small pox patients – with electric current.

The only true statement here was that his arguments were fallacious.
The only true statement here was that his arguments were fallacious.

Not surprisingly, Birch also used many of the same arguments that we hear today:

  • vaccines are dangerous (they can have risks, but are very safe)
  • vaccines cause a host of vaccine-induced diseases (they don’t)
  • vaccines sometimes don’t work (yes, they don’t work 100% of the time, but they do work very well)

He also leaves out the part about small pox inoculation being a lot riskier than vaccination, although either was certainly better than being at risk for a natural small pox infection. Actually, he doesn’t leave that out. Birch goes out of his way to claim that inoculation is a safer practice!

Why should folks believe him?

Because he says that he was right to stick with a treatment that others had already given up on – “here I was unwilling to give up Experience for Experiment, wanting nothing more safe or certain than Mercury…”

“In all investments, and in all enquiries, Trust must ultimately prevail.”

John Birch 1804

Fortunately, the truth prevailed.

Russia became the first country to ban inoculation or variolation, transitioning in favor of vaccination with Jenner’s small pox vaccine, in 1805. This is around the same time as Birch published his anti-vaccine pamphlet. Other countries followed their lead.

Birch was wrong about mercury and he was wrong about the small pox vaccine.

The John Birch Society

Although some of the member of the John Birch Society are associated with some anti-vaccine ideas and conspiracy theories, they have nothing to do with Jenner’s John Birch.

The John Birch Society was founded by Robert Welch and named after John Morrison Birch, a missionary who is said to have been the first victim of the Cold War.

What to Know About John Birch

John Birch was one of the first anti-vaccinationists and fought against Edward Jenner’s new small pox vaccine.

More About John Birch

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Who is Joseph Meister

Most people know the big names in the history of vaccines.

They know that Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine (1798) and that both Jonas Salk (1955) and Albert Sabin (1960s) developed polio vaccines.

Many other important names are forgotten though.

Ever heard of James Phipps? He was the 8-year-old boy who was the first to become inoculated with cowpox by Jenner to see if it would protect him from smallpox.

Who is Joseph Meister

Edward Jenner didn’t go out of his way to experiment on Joseph Meister, but he has a similar story.

A plaque honors Joseph Meister and Louis Pasteur in the Alsace region of France.
A plaque honors Joseph Meister and Louis Pasteur in the Alsace region of France.

In 1885, Louis Pasteur had been working on an attenuated (weakened) rabies vaccine in his lab in Paris, but had still not tested it on any human patients yet.

One hot July morning in 1885, feverish little Joseph Meister was dragged by his frantic mother through the streets of Paris in search of an unknown scientist who, according to rumors, could prevent rabies. For nine-year-old Joseph had been bitten in 14 places by a huge, mad dog and in a desperate attempt to cheat death, his mother had fled from their home town in Alsace to Paris. Early in the afternoon Mme Meister met a young physician in a hospital. “You mean Pasteur,” he said. “I’ll take you there.”

Time magazine 1939

Supervised by two doctors, Dr. Alfred Vulpian and Dr. Jacques-Joseph Grancher, Joseph Meister received the first of 14 doses of Pasteur’s rabies vaccine on July 6, 1885, two days after he was bitten.

Joseph Meister survived and became the first person to be successfully vaccinated against rabies.

“As the death of this child appeared inevitable, I decided, not without deep and severe unease, as one can well imagine, to try on Joseph Meister the procedure which had consistently worked in dogs.”

Louis Pasteur

So at about the same time as anti-vaccine folks were marching in Leicester, Joseph Meister’s mother traveled over 400km to see a doctor she didn’t know, to get her son an experimental vaccine that had never even been used on a person before.

News of the Newark kids going to Paris to get Pasteur's rabies vaccine made the front page of the New York Times.
News of the Newark kids going to Paris to get Pasteur’s rabies vaccine made it into the New York Times.

Her son was lucky that she did.

It saved his life.

A few months later, a teenager named Jean-Baptiste Jupille was bitten by a rabid dog as he saved six other children that were being attacked. He became the second person to receive Pasteur’s rabies vaccine and he too lived.

Soon, Pasteur was a hero and many people were seeking his rabies vaccine from all over the world.

In December 1885, six boys from Newark, New Jersey were bitten by a rabid dog and there were calls to send them to Paris to be treated by Pasteur. Donations were collected and four of the boys ended up going on the steamship Canada to Paris.

While that trip to Paris generated some controversy, as some later doubted that the dog had rabies, there is no doubt that Pasteur’s rabies vaccine saved a lot of lives.

Few people survived having rabies in the pre-vaccine era.
Few people survived having rabies in the pre-vaccine era.

Why were folks in Newark, and apparently everywhere else, so afraid of rabies?

It had only been a few months earlier, about the time that Joseph Meister was being successfully vaccinated in Paris, that newspapers were reporting about “the terrible death” of a 5-year-old in Newark “after suffering the most intense agony.”

He had rabies.

Even if news of that case wasn’t fresh on their minds, it is easy to see that rabies wasn’t something you survived.

It should come as no surprise that there were soon rabies treatment clinics in major cities all over the world using Pasteur’s vaccine.

What to Know About Joseph Meister

At about the same time as anti-vaccine folks were marching in Leicester, Joseph Meister’s mother traveled over 400km to see a doctor she didn’t know, to get her son an experimental vaccine that had never been used on a person before – to save him from rabies.

More About Joseph Meister

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