overcoming disease

Until the 20th century, it was common to lose a child to disease. Smallpox, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, and mumps maimed and killed thousands of children every year. But due to the development of vaccines, there has not been a single natural case of smallpox in the world since 1977, polio has been eradicated in the Western Hemisphere, and whooping cough, tetanus, and mumps are rarely seen in developed countries.

Smallpox causes blisters similar to chickenpox. Smallpox is easily spread through coughing or sneezing, or through contact with contaminated clothes or bed linen. Twelve and 14 days after exposure, the patient develops a fever with severe aches and pains. A rash then appears over the entire body including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Death occurs in 30% of patients due to a massive immune response that causes clotting of the blood and organ failure. Vaccination before exposure to smallpox prevents the illness. There is no known treatment; however, vaccination up to 5 days after the exposure may help to prevent death.

Polio is caused by a virus that enters through the mouth and is easily transmitted from person to person, particularly between children during the summer months. It causes headache, fever, and aches before entering the bloodstream and infecting the nerves controlling movement. The disease causes paralysis in the arms and/or legs (spinal polio), throat, eyes, face, heart, or lungs (bulbar polio), or both (bulbospinal polio). It can lead to suffocation and death caused by paralysis of the lung muscles. Before the invention of the “iron lung,” about half of children with bulbar or bulbospinal polio died. disease

“In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation [had his son vaccinated]. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

Benjamin Franklin, His Autobiography: 1706-1757

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement