Many things have surprised us over the past year as COVID-19 has made its way around the world. One was the speed at which vaccines were developed to safeguard us against this virus. Another was that not everyone shared the desire to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.
Vaccines are not a new invention. One of the first effective vaccines against the disease came from China about 1500 years ago and was widely used there.
The old Chinese vaccine worked against smallpox. Like many diseases, smallpox came to us humans from animals – almost certainly from African rodents. We have solid evidence that smallpox existed in India, Egypt and China around 3000 years ago.
Smallpox has been eradicated today but between 1000 and 2000 AD it killed at least 10% of the world’s population. In the 100 years from 1880 until its eradication around 1980, it killed around 500 million people. There were several variants of smallpox, but the most common one had a 35% mortality rate. And survivors developed severe scarring, mainly on the face and other secondary effects.
We, humans, have a complex and brilliant immune system that can fight most diseases. Generally, the immune system produces both cells and chemicals that target and wipe out infections specifically – whether it is a bacterium as in meningococcal disease or a virus as in smallpox or yes, COVID-19 as well.
The issue is that our immune system needs time to react fully. It usually takes a couple of weeks to produce brand new cells and chemicals in response to a new infection – and during that time, you might end up dead.
Vaccines are therefore designed to give your immune system a boost. They give you a ‘taste’ of the microbe to trigger the production of protective cells and chemicals in your immune system without you having to get sick first. Then your immune system quietly works away. After a few weeks, it will have produced cells and chemicals specifically targeted against that microbe. Then your immune system can sit back and relax because this reaction memory is safely stored. Later, when the actual harmful germ appears, this pathway switches back on. Almost instantly, your immune system floods your body with protective chemicals and microbes to fight infection – and keep you from dying. You may not even notice that your immune system was working in the background, which kept you alive.
In Europe, modern vaccination began in 1976 with the English country doctor Edward Jenner. At that time, there was a disease closely related to smallpox called ‘cowpox’. Cowpox was very much milder than smallpox – much less scarring and a much lower mortality rate. Jenner noticed that when people who milked cows got cowpox, they almost always lived, but most importantly, they also seemed to be permanently immune to smallpox. Jenner’s idea was to give people a small dose of cowpox. He got the cowpox material roughly, dried it, put it on the end of a needle and just stuck the needle into the patient’s skin a few times – and it worked. Now ‘vacca’ is the Latin word for ‘cow’, so the process came to be called ‘vaccination’.
Chinese medical texts from the late 800s describe an early form of vaccination called “variolation”. Smallpox caused visible raised small scabs (the “smallpox”) to appear on the flesh of those infected. The Chinese doctors of the day would scrape off the top layers of the scabs and dry them. Variolation was the blowing of these dried particles (containing the smallpox virus) up the nostrils. It deliberately exposed the patients to a very low dose of smallpox virus particles.
Back then in China, medical quality control was not particularly good. If you were lucky, you would get a lot of dead skin and a tiny amount of smallpox virus but if you were unlucky, you could get lots of smallpox virus.
So the death rate from the Chinese variolation was about 1%. But that was much better odds than the 35% death rate from getting the actual smallpox virus. The 99% of those who survived the variolation had a far milder illness than if they were infected naturally. The other upside is that they were then immune for life.
So for anybody who thinks that Ancient Chinese Medicines are the best option, then vaccines will 100% fit the bill.
Let us know in the comment section if you have been vaccinated for COVID-19.