The Speckled Monster: Canada, Smallpox and Its Eradication

By Barreto, Luis; Rutty, Christopher J. | Canadian Journal of Public Health, July/August 2002 | Go to article overview

The Speckled Monster: Canada, Smallpox and Its Eradication


Barreto, Luis, Rutty, Christopher J., Canadian Journal of Public Health


The Early Years: 1635-1965

Introduction

"Today we have no conception of the meaning of the word 'smallpox'." So wrote Dr. John J. Heagerty of Canada's Federal Public Health Service in a 1924 booklet, Smallpox and Vaccination: A Popular Treatise, published in the wake of an alarming outbreak in Windsor that year.2 He went on to stress that, "For us the word has been robbed of its terrors and we discuss the problem of smallpox in the community in a general and academic way." However, in the pre-vaccine days, "the word 'smallpox' blanched the cheek and brought a look of terror to the eyes. Smallpox in those days meant death. Relentless and insatiate the disease would sweep though a community mowing down all those who had not already suffered from it; killing, maiming and leaving its victims blinded or disfigured for life." Moreover, "It played a part of no little importance in the political history of Canada in the early days... When smallpox stepped in and took charge, all activities ceased and as the chronicler says: 'the only meetings were for funerals.' Vaccination has altered all this and forgetful or ignorant of the appalling ravages of the disease in other days, we now scarcely give the subject of smallpox a thought."

Seventy-eight years later - twenty-two years after smallpox was officially declared eradicated from the Earth in 1980 by the World Health Organization - and in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the spectre of the "speckled monster" has re-emerged from history. With routine smallpox vaccination in North America stopped in the early 1970s, everyone born since, and perhaps most people on the planet, their immunity faded from earlier vaccinations, are now vulnerable to the smallpox, or variola, virus - this time because of its potential use as a bioterrorism weapon. Smallpox was the first infectious disease consigned to the pages of history; now, in the face of its possible use as a bio-weapon, one must turn to history to begin the process of reacquainting ourselves with the power of this disease and of re-building an effective defense against it.

Canada's experience with smallpox and smallpox vaccines has been significant. The victim of smallpox's frightening wrath many times since its first appearance here in 1635 and its last in 1962, Canada played an essential role in the development, improvement and delivery of smallpox vaccines and in their utilization in the eradication of the disease. In particular, Connaught Medical Research Laboratories - part of the University of Toronto from 1914 to 1972,3 and today a key component of the global Aventis Pasteur organization - was the primary hub of Canada's efforts to control and ultimately eradicate smallpox internationally.

"The Speckled Monster" in Canada

Smallpox was first introduced into North America's northern half in about 1635, not long after the first settlers arrived from France. While most of the Old World was well experienced with this disease, the New World's native population was immunologically innocent of smallpox until the early 17 1h century arrival of the first Europeans. From the first smallpox epidemic among the Montagnais near Quebec City in 1635, the disease spread rapidly among all natives with great destructive force, by 1670 decimating the Algonquins, Hurons and several other tribes of New France. During the 18 1h century, as the population of settlers grew, so did the threat of smallpox among them: 3,000 deaths in Quebec City in 1702-03, another 1,800 deaths there thirty years later, and 2,600 dead in 1757. By the early 1780s, the disease had reached into the western plains.4 In the midst of frequent outbreaks among the European settlers, it is evident that the power of smallpox was harnessed as a bio-weapon against the native population. In the early 1 760s, the smallpox virus was deliberately spread among several tribes by the British military using infected blankets given as a "token of good fortune. …

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