THE FEAR OF FORGETTING
As a Baby Boomer I can only hope that a vaccine against Alzheimer’s will be developed before my alarming short-term memory loss blossoms into full blown dementia. Meanwhile, I practice spelling ‘world’ backwards, and counting backwards in sevens.
Of course our attention has now turned to a vaccine against Covid-19, and anti-vaxxers are becoming increasingly vocal.
My first experience of vaccination remains vivid. Compulsory smallpox vaccination was an eagerly anticipated rite of passage for young Aussies heading overseas in the nineteen sixties and seventies. We cheerfully rolled up our sleeves and wore our disfiguring scars like badges of honour. My older sister was disappointed when her arm failed to produce the slightest pimple. She was told this was because she had already been exposed to cowpox; legacy of being raised on a Tasmanian dairy farm.
Few outside the medical profession would be aware that the word vaccination derives from the Latin vacca, for cow. It is a reminder that a bovine virus led to the discovery of vaccination as a protection against disease; initially smallpox.
The connection between smallpox and the relatively harmless cowpox virus was made in the eighteenth century by Edward Jenner, a country doctor from Gloucestershire.
Jenner had noticed that many local dairy maids emerged unscathed from smallpox epidemics. In 1796 he extracted fluid from a pustule on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, then introduced the virus to 8 year old James Phipps via a simple scratch. The little boy experienced only a mild fever. When his experiment with what became known as ‘vaccination’ proved a success, Jenner established a free clinic for local people. Not everyone supported him. An anti -vaccination society sprang up, and a satirical cartoon was circulated showing patients sprouting cow-like growths.
It is less widely known that a Dorset dairy farmer by the name of Benjamin Jesty had already experimented with vaccination some twenty years earlier. During an outbreak of smallpox in 1774, Jesty innoculated his wife and two sons with matter drawn from the udder of an infected cow. Jesty himself was already immune due to his close contact with the herd. He was widely criticized for this action at the time, but later his contribution to public health was recognized and he was awarded a gold medal.
Having identified our great-great-grandmother as Martha Guppy, a dairymaid (co-incidentally from Dorset), I am beginning to think that my sister’s failed vaccination had as much to do with genes as visits to our cowshed. A scar on my arm proves the jab worked in my own case, but we may have inherited a resistance to smallpox from Martha, along with rather solid ankles! Whether she suffered from dementia is of course, unknown. The poor soul died far too young for it to develop.
Opposition to the smallpox vaccine continued into the 20th century. The highly respected Canadian born physician Dr William Osler spoke out in 1911;
A DOCTOR’S DARE
Apparently there were no takers for Dr Osler’s challenge. What a surprise!
After reading an article about research into a vaccine against Alzheimers I forwarded it to my sister. Faced with the prospect of marrying a local farmer and becoming a fifth generation dairymaid, she left home at seventeen to train as a nurse. She was later employed as a recreational therapist in a dementia unit. As a fellow Baby Boomer, she is no doubt watching scientific developments with both professional and personal interest!
Dementia and Alzheimer’s are modern day scourges of society, just as smallpox, polio, typhoid and many other diseases were in the past. Unfortunately, we must now add Covid-19 to the mix. It will be interesting to see how our more individualistic society reacts if and when an effective vaccine becomes available. Already, ethical and religious issues are being raised about the testing one of the most promising vaccines in development.
For a history of vaccination in Australia, CLICK HERE
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