How We Beat Back Smallpox and Other Diseases

By Bobby Gill on March 26, 2020

Throughout history, dark tales of fierce diseases have intertwined with the human race from radical strains of flu, The Plague and smallpox. Before modern medicine, illnesses were often attributed to divine intervention, emerging almost serendipitously at fragile times of human development to wreak havoc on our growing species. Whatever the religion or deity of the society where the disease occurred, it was assumed there was some matter of sin against these divine beings that had to be atoned for where prayer was the only answer.?

Today, most of us know that widespread disease doesn’t originate from an angry god – at least, that’s the consensus – but rather a combination of physiological and social conditions that combine for certain destruction. Thankfully, we know better ways of combating these microscopic terrors through the use of modern medicine and healthy lifestyles.

But have you ever wondered what it’s taken to effectively combat disease? Or how it all started? It’s much more than people in lab coats pouring concoctions together until some magic elixir is produced that passes FDA standards. In the wake of the Coronavirus that’s sweeping our nation, let’s take a look at a couple of history’s most famous diseases and how we overcame these microscopic monsters.

The reemergence of the Black Plague in 1665

The 17th century, or end of the Renaissance Period, marked a transitional period after some miraculous advances for humankind. Notably, early “real” science began to take a foothold in society. Machines like the printing press enabled the distribution of information and much of Europe began to globalize in what most consider a savage fashion.

As Great Britain began to enjoy the benefits of the Early Modern Period, an unrealized double-edged sword became unsheathed for the second time in history. The expanse of humans around Europe and other parts of the world in conjunction with a sharp increase in population created a vulnerability that society of the time couldn’t quite fathom.

The bacteria known as Yersinia pestis responsible for the Black Plague (sometimes call the Bubonic Plague or Black Death) began to sweep across Britain in 1665 after nearly 300 years of being mostly dormant. It’s “zoonotic” in nature, meaning parasites carried by rats and other vermin that thrived in urban environments were primarily responsible for spreading the disease across Europe.

With a high infection rate and no modern antibiotics, people infected typically died – the mortality rate without adequate treatment was assumed to be as high as 90% for those infected.

How we “beat” the plague

One disaster followed another which, in hindsight, ended up being the best possible way to combat the disease without modern medicine. The Great Fire of London destroyed a substantial portion of the kingdom’s capital which was a major contributor – and oddly, a blessing – in combating the disease.

While the fire was a tragedy in itself, the chaos from the fire would ultimately destroy enough of the environments at the disease’s epicenter where rodents and other flea-carrying creatures flourished.

The dispersion of people reduced physical proximity which made less favorable conditions for rodents. Travel for business, discovery, and pleasure took a back seat to the rebuilding which eventually pushed the disease into the background where it has mostly existed since that time – the infection rate today is roughly 7 recorded cases in the US. Worldwide, the worse years have observed, at most, 2000 cases per year.

Beating back smallpox with modern medicine

While there are several great instances of how modern medicine has achieved victory over disease, smallpox is perhaps the best example. Paralleling certain symptoms of the plague, smallpox is viral which made it much more problematic for society though the why factor wasn’t understood at the time.

The variola virus is assumed to have first appeared thousands of years ago based on ancient texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia that “described” the symptoms. Typically, the unsightly lesions were the most obvious symptom to observers after the roughly two-week incubation period of the disease – like leprosy, the disease was often attributed to a curse from some supernatural entity.

Smallpox vaccine: trial, error and a little bit of luck

Before the advent of atomic theory, medicine was a lot of guesswork. Doctors were less connected and simply had their own, unaided eyes to observe the results of their experiments.

In an early “a-ha” moment during 1796, an English doctor named Dr. Edward Jenner happened to notice that those exposed to cowpox didn’t seem to be vulnerable to smallpox. In a daring experiment, he inoculated a milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, and her 9-year-old son with a small amount of the virus to test the theory that those exposed to this similar virus would be immune.?

Lo-and-behold: it worked. The son, James Phipps, was exposed to smallpox several times yet never contracted the highly contagious virus.

Fast forward to the 1940s, scientists had finally gained a grasp both on bacteria and viruses, thanks largely in part to powerful microscopes that allowed them to study deadly bacteria and viruses. Today’s modern imaging and AI didn’t exist but it was enough for scientists to slowly figure out how to build a formidable vaccination that would ultimately stop the virus in its track.

The disease was declared eradicated December, 9th, 1979 after the last-known, naturally-occurring case surfaced in Somalia in 1977. Professionals in the medical community state that this is the final time the virus has emerged on its own accord

Combating viruses today and beyond

Since the days pre-dating electricity and modern AI, we’ve managed to conjure solutions for a multitude of conditions like smallpox. Today, we have modern machine learning (ML) that allows us to interpret data not possible in the past.?

In an upcoming post, we cover how disease control apps help us feel safer amidst this current outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. With the combined powers of medicine and technology, we will eventually find a solution to the COVID-19 virus and other Coronaviruses. Stay tuned for more information on how modern software using this technology is responsible for helping combat a variety of “super viruses” that rear their ugly heads around the world.?

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