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LETTER: Reader offers lesson on how diseases have been handled throughout history

'Human ingenuity did find ways to combat the spread of disease well before we knew what was causing it,' writes Barrie resident
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Human populations have always been susceptible to infectious diseases. For course, our ancestors had absolutely no idea what caused these illnesses. We eventually connected sickness with bacteria or parasites in the last half of the 19th century, and another half-century to gradually discover viruses.

However, human ingenuity did find ways to combat the spread of disease well before we knew what was causing it. The simplest and most effective way to protect society was (and remains) the quarantine; identifying and quickly separating sick individuals from the healthy population.

I was personally quarantined when I was diagnosed with scarlet fever as a 10-year-old child in the early 1950s. Our house had a quarantine notice attached to the front door and I was confined to my room for one month – unfortunately missing the entire Easter holiday.

The quarantine concept is first described in the Book of Leviticus dating to 700 BC orders people with skin disease (possibly leprosy) to live apart from others. The Islamic world built special leprosy hospitals to help keep sufferers away from the rest of the population.

By the Middle Ages, Eastern Mediterranean ports enacted regulations to force ships arriving from countries known to harbour bubonic plague to wait 30 days (trentine) or later 40 days (quarantine) before being allowed into port. By then, it was believed the disease would have run its course.

Around 1,000 years ago, clever people in India noted that individuals who recovered from smallpox were immune to re-infection. They experimented with taking material from a smallpox blister and scratching it into the skin of a healthy person. This, they hoped, would produce a localized infection with some scarring, but provide immunity to re-infection.

This process was called “variolation," after the variola (latin varius = rash) disease. Unfortunately, variolation could also produce full-blown disease, and even an epidemic. Nevertheless, variolation was used, mainly by wealthy people, to protect themselves from the deadly disease.

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner tested the hypothesis that infection with material from cowpox blisters could protect against smallpox. Testing proved his hypothesis and vaccination (from vacca = cow) gradually became the preferred method of protecting people from smallpox. At the time, smallpox was the world’s most deadly disease, killing hundreds of thousands every year. Edward Jenner’s accomplishment is rightly celebrated worldwide.

The last recorded case of smallpox occurred in 1977 and the disease was considered eradicated globally in 1980. Today, samples of the virus exist in one Russian and one American facility – one can only imagine why...

I remember a few polio victims in my schools; poor children with one or both legs withered and supported by braces watching longingly while the rest of us played soccer or lacrosse. An extensive worldwide campaign, first with the Salk vaccine and later with the Sabin oral vaccine has virtually eradicated this disease.

Measles is not usually a serious disease, however, it can be a killer if it infects undernourished children. Is poor nutrition unknown in Canada? Mumps often evokes jokes of looking like a chipmunk. However, a friend contracted mumps as an adult; when he returned to work he had become completely and permanently deaf in one ear. Rubella is also a mild disease, but if a pregnant woman is infected, it can cause a miscarriage or serious birth defects in the unborn child.

We give all children MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine to prevent the above and it is wonderfully effective.

Although chickenpox is also not a serious disease in children, it is far more serious in adults. When I was a child, people held “chickenpox parties” with an infected child. The hope was that all the children would get it, protecting them throughout adulthood. A chickenpox vaccine has been available since 1984 and is recommended by the World Health Organisation.

We have vaccinations for yellow fever, meningitis, hepatitis, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza, and many other diseases. These greatly extend human lifespan and reduce suffering. They are a prime reason why Canadian society is so healthy.

The world’s most recently developed vaccine protects us against COVID-19. Worldwide, influenza kills around half-million people per year. COVID-19 is estimated to be about 10 times as deadly. Indeed, to date the number of Americans who have died of COVID-19 exceeds 600,000; worldwide, it’s death toll is over 4,000,000, and that for a disease which has only been around for 18 months!

Why would any Canadian living today question the value of vaccination against COVID-19?

Peter Bursztyn