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Public Health Assignment: Smallpox Outbreak In 18th Century


The task requires you to produce public health assignment on historical perspective and a reflective account about:

  • Mention a particular individual in the past describing how his ideas have contributed in shaping contemporary public health.
  • Describing one event in the past which contributed to the evolution of contemporary public health.
  • Also describe how the changing perspectives of disease and health have influenced current public health practice.
  • Mention two contemporary issues in public health and how they have been influenced by historical events.


According to the research on public health assignment, during the 18th century, the public health of western society was at greater risk of witnessing fall due to the increased rate of deaths, morbidities, and suffering. With the increased number of illnesses ad diseases and no proper health care facilities and treatment against the condition, public health was losing its structure and control. From 1721 till 1722, an epidemic of unknown virus affected the entire western society, where each country sustains massive deaths from the infection. The epidemic was called a smallpox outbreak which was one of the deadliest of any illnesses that were witnessed by the people of that respective era (Meyer, Ehmann & Smith, 2020). Smallpox was one of the most severe worldwide public health issues in history. But in today's world, smallpox is the only public health disease that has been eradicated successfully. Smallpox is known to be an acute and very contagious disease, which is caused by the variola virus (a member of the Orthopoxvirus family). The exact time of origin of the smallpox virus infection is still not confirmed (Ferrari et al. 2020). During the epidemic of smallpox and the rising concern of the public health in the western countries, an English scientist and physician have his major contribution in providing strength and support to the public health care organizations. Thus, the assignment is going to analyze and evaluate the event that incorporated a major change in the structure of public health during the 18th century as well as the role of Edward Jenner in shaping public health issues.

The event in history that shaped public health issue:
The epidemic caused by smallpox during the year 1721 to 1722 provided a major motivation and consideration to public health which helped the world sustain a strong and powerful contemporary public health. Earlier the public health was not strong or advanced enough to manage and control a major viral outbreak due to lacking the idea of vaccination against the infections. From the occurrence of the smallpox outbreak, in the 18th century, public health sustained the precious idea about vaccination. Smallpox during the era was known to be the deadliest epidemics causing numerous deaths that were going out of control (Schrick et al., 2017). The years of 1721 suffering from smallpox outbreak thus developed a remarkable milestone in the pages of history explaining smallpox eradiation and development of the idea of vaccination. As the smallpox infection severely affected western civilization's development, it has been found that annually 4,00,000 people witnessed death due to smallpox in Europe in the era of the 18th century. People who survived somehow, one-third of them lost their ability to see. It was so devastating infection that every 3-4 people out of 10 witnessed mortality. The people who survived were somehow left with severe health damage or scares for a lifetime. Smallpox left a major impact on world history as is estimated that smallpox was the reason for at least 300-400 million deaths worldwide (Grant, 2019).

According to the virologist, it evolved from an African rodent poxvirus minimum almost 10 millennia ago. This virus can be transmitted from person to person directly. It has an incubation period of 7 to 17 days at least. in case of smallpox infection, lesions develop in different parts of the body that breaks open and turn into sores, which causes serious complications. In past days smallpox had a severe mortality rate among the infected people. Witnessing the uncontrolled outbreak of smallpox, the public health thus sustains a major change in their structure which in today's world has provided with an advanced and successful public health that has the strength to manage and treat any outbreak of viral infection (Melamed, Israely & Paran, 2018).

Variolation was one of the major steps that were first taken into account by the public health to manage the outbreak of smallpox, which was also named after smallpox causing virus. In this process, pustules from the smallpox score were given to healthy individuals, who had never had an infection of smallpox. This was mainly done in two processes; scratching in the arms otherwise inhaling the pustules from the nose. People developed smallpox associated symptoms in both types of variolation. It has been shown that the rate people of dying from variolation are lesser than the death rate of people, who had acquired smallpox naturally (Esparza, 2020). The idea of immunization was primarily attained from variolation which though did not show any effective result during the period of time. Later from the process of variolation, an English scientist and physician extracted the idea of immunizing individuals using vaccination which in contemporary public health is one of the major changes to date.

Individual and idea that shaped public health issue:
Behind the success of today's world in managing and overcoming any critical illness or viral outbreak, is the role of one individual from history who designated his life and skills in strengthening and shaping the structure of public health. As the outbreak of smallpox was increasing and variolation showed failure in minimizing the threat of smallpox, a new idea immerged from one of the individuals who himself suffered the complications of deprived immunization.

Edward Jenner, presently known as one of the well renowned English scientists and physician, was merely a schoolboy when he suffered from the traumatic experience of side effects as he was being variolated against smallpox. He later in his life practiced in the medical field under the mentorship of John Hunter with the support of which he surpassed variolation and invented vaccination against smallpox. Edward Jenner's idea of vaccination in the 18th century accepted the most effective process in the revolution of global health history and in shaping public health (Theves et al. 2016).

The idea of next level inoculation or immunization of healthy individuals proposed by Edward Jenner accounted to be the safest way to immunize when compared to variolation. The idea of immunization using vaccines came into the mind of Edward Jenner when he observed that people working between cattle or dairy farms did not suffer from the infection of smallpox. With the observation and research on several theories, Edward Jenner proposed a hypothesis where he compared and correlated smallpox with another viral infection called cowpox. Cowpox was then known to be a mild disease that generally came from cattle, and it was suspected by Edward Jenner that the infection spread from animals specifically cattle had the capability to inhibit the infection of smallpox. He did the first experiment on one of his milk-maid named Sarah Nelmes and Jenner’s gardener’s 9 years old son James Phillips. Jenner took pustules from a cowpox sore on the milkmaid's hand and then inoculated that collected material into Phillips's arm (Morabia, 2018).

After some months, Dr. Jenner intentionally exposed Phillips to the variola virus a couple of times. But he observed that Phillips never gets infected by the smallpox virus or developed any symptoms of smallpox. Later, he also experimented a few more times to ensure the success of the experiment, and then, he published a treatise on the origin of the vaccine inoculation where he describes his idea of the vaccination process. This makes vaccination to become a widely accepted process to control the effect of smallpox, gradually replacing the practice of variolation (Phillips, 2018).

With the support of his hypothesis, Jenner proceeded with several experiments and provided the contemporary world with the concept of immunology, preventive health measure, and vaccination. Hence, this idea of vaccination by Jenner was the most precious event in the history of medicine that has helped in shaping public health and ensuring preventive measures against critical illness and their outbreaks.

From the above study, it can be concluded that Smallpox once served as one of the major worldwide public health issues in history that almost broke the structure and strength of public health during the 18th century. The precious idea of Dr. Edward Jenner thus played a major role in ensuring a firm and long-term structure to public health by developing the idea of vaccination. His idea of vaccination was the most accepted event of the history of medicine that shapes the severe type of public health issues like smallpox. Vaccination has hence become the most effective process of controlling viral infection in today's world. The global smallpox eradication gets succeed because of the remarkable invention of Edward Jenner and of course the later developments from his endeavors. Thus, it clearly explains the role of Edward Jenner and his idea about vaccination played in providing a stable and strong structure to contemporary public health.

Esparza, J., 2020. Early vaccine advocacy: Medals honoring Edward Jenner issued during the 19th century. Vaccine, 38(6), pp.1450-1456.

Ferrari, G., Neukamm, J., Baalsrud, H.T., Breidenstein, A.M., Ravinet, M., Phillips, C., Rühli, F., Bouwman, A., and Schuenemann, V.J., 2020. Variola virus genome sequenced from an eighteenth-century museum specimen supports the recent origin of smallpox. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 375(1812), p.20190572.

Grant, A., 2019. Globalization Of Variolation: The Overlooked Origins Of Immunity For Smallpox In The 18th Century. World Scientific.

Melamed, S., Israely, T., & Paran, N. (2018). Challenges and achievements in prevention and treatment of smallpox. Vaccines, 6(1), 8.

Meyer, H., Ehmann, R., & Smith, G. L. (2020). Smallpox in the Post-Eradication Era. Viruses, 12(2), 138.

Morabia, A. (2018). Edward Jenner’s 1798 report of challenge experiments demonstrating the protective effects of cowpox against smallpox. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 111(7), 255-257.

Phillips, S.P., 2018. of smallpox through vaccination. The society was dissolved in 1809 and replaced by the National Vaccine Establishment, whose conflicts in leadership convinced Jen-ner to return to his practice in Berkeley. Jenner was instrumental in the creation of the Medical and Surgical Society of London, which became the Royal Society of Medicine. King George IV granted him. Encyclopedia of Public Health: Principles, People, and Programs [2 volumes], p.371.

Schrick, L., Tausch, S. H., Dabrowski, P. W., Damaso, C. R., Esparza, J., & Nitsche, A. (2017). An early American smallpox vaccine based on horsepox. New England Journal of Medicine, 377(15), 1491-1492.

Thèves, C., Crubézy, E., and Biagini, P., 2016. History of smallpox and its spread in human populations. Paleomicrobiology of Humans, pp.161-172


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