Thursday, 13 December 2012

Beating a deadly disease

Ellastone Parish records state that it was Katherine Bott a servant to Mr Hugh Sheldon who was the first to die. She must have thought she had the flu when she fell ill in May 1636. There would have been headaches, tiredness and sickness. At this time, she would have been too sick to carry on her normal duties.  Small red spots later emerged on her tongue and mouth. These spots develop into sores that broke open spreading the virus. At this time she was highly contagious. Death would have followed by the second week. It may have come from the intense fever causing dehydration, kidney and heart failure. The disease that Katherine succumbed to was a scourge- Smallpox. The disease entered into the country the previous century although it had been known about since Roman times. The parish record in Ellastone chronicles its progress that summer of 1636 with Katherine the first victim. John Weston, John Smith, quickly followed her until the 10th victim Prudence Walker died on August 10th. The disease was to become a frequent visitor to the Staffordshire Moorlands with epidemics breaking out regularly. Even as late as 1878 there was a report of an outbreak in the West End part of Leek.

Smallpox was particularly successful in virgin populations. The Spanish inadvertently owe much of their success in conquering the Aztecs in the 16th century to smallpox. Unlike the Spanish, the native Indians had no immunity to the disease, having never encountered it before. It wiped out millions of them.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is credited with introducing variolation to Britain in 1721. Severely pockmarked herself after surviving the illness, she learnt about the method in Constantinople, where her husband was the British Ambassador. She had her children inoculated- the first Westerner to do so, She is buried at Lichfield Cathedral. It was Edward Jenner who later developed vaccination that proved the turning point

 The fight against smallpox, one of the great killers of mankind, proved successful .A concerted effort by the World Health Organisation to eliminate the disease through vaccination triumphed. In the 1950s 2 million people were dying of smallpox throughout the world. By 1980 the disease had been eradicated- surely one of mankind’s better moments