Medicine and Disease

Yellow Fever

What was the first disease conquered by human beings?

Smallpox was the first disease eradicated by medicine. Caused by a virus spread from person to person through the air, smallpox was one of the most feared diseases and there was no treatment for it. Before the discovery of the New World, smallpox epidemics swept across Africa, Asia, and Europe, leaving victims scarred and/or blind, and killing countless millions. When explorers set out to find new trade routes and landed in North and South America, they brought the disease with them, infecting the indigenous peoples.

But once a person had the disease, he or she would not contract it again. This and other observations led British physician Edward Jenner (1749–1823) to develop a successful vaccine against the disease. Prior to the vaccine, the only preventive method was inoculation of the disease itself, which sometimes led to further spread of the disease. For example, in 1777 American general George Washington (1732–1799)obtained congressional approval to inoculate the entire Continental army against smallpox, but the results were mixed.

After its discovery in 1798 the use of Jenner’s vaccine quickly spread. The first vaccine given in the United States was in 1799 by a Harvard physician. During the 1800s many countries passed laws requiring vaccination. Improvements in the vaccine resulted in the elimination of smallpox from Europe and North America by the 1940s. When the World Health Organization (WHO) was created by the United Nations in 1946, one of its aims was to reduce the instances of smallpox around the world. Immunization programs brought this about: The last natural occurrence of the disease was reported in October 1977 in Somalia, Africa. When no further cases were documented within the next two years, the disease was considered eradicated.


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