As smallpox takes over the body, it begins with a high fever, fatigue, a headache and backache. You’d develop a flat, red rash that would spread all to your face, limbs and torso. The rash would scab over after three to four weeks, and you’d be left with pitted scars. Smallpox is a frightening infectious disease, once killing over 30 per cent of those infected.i

Thankfully, smallpox stopped affecting humans more than four decades ago. In 1980, the World Health Assembly declared smallpox eradicated, and no cases of naturally occurring smallpox have happened since.ii This success was thanks to a worldwide vaccination and surveillance program led by the World Health Organization (WHO). iii

Vaccines are one of world’s most vital tools to combat disease and they have a long history. In the 15th century, as smallpox wreaked havoc, Chinese practitioners recognized that people who had contracted the disease were immune to reinfection and used a technique called variolation, which included inhaling scabs from recently infected individuals. The technique spread across Asia to Africa, India, and the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, which, while not risk-free, was effective in reducing deaths.iv

A key feature of medicine

In 1796, an English doctor named Edward Jenner developed the principles of modern vaccination. Recognizing that milkmaids who had caught cowpox were immune to smallpox, he scratched the skin of his gardener’s son with cowpox scabs from a local milkmaid. A few days later, when the boy came into contact with the smallpox virus, he did not develop an infection.v

A century later, French biologist Louis Pasteur created the first vaccines against anthrax and rabies, using an attenuated (weakened) version of the virus. This paved the way for diseases that were too virulent to deliberately infect humans with. In 1885, Pasteur injected a first shot into a boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog and saved his life.

The 20th century saw the discovery of many new, effective vaccines. These vaccines became a key feature of medicine, with their use often leading to a reduced incidence of some serious and even fatal diseasesvi.

  • Yellow fever (1937)
  • Tetanus (1938)
  • Whooping cough (1939)
  • Influenza (1945)
  • Diphtheria (1949)
  • Polio (1955)
  • Measles (1963)
  • Mumps (1967)

Today, vaccination is used to combat many life-threatening, infectious diseases. It is estimated that vaccines prevent four to five million deaths ever year.vii New vaccine technology is developing rapidly, and multiple techniques are now being used to combat the current coronavirus pandemic. Medicago hopes that its plant-based vaccines will represent an exciting development in vaccine history, and we are proud to be part of the continued fight against new and emerging threats to health.

i U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2018. Smallpox. Accessed September 2021.

ii CDC. n.d. Smallpox. Accessed September 2021.

iii World Health Organization. n.d. Smallpox. Accessed September 2021.

iv U.S. National Library of Medicine. n.d. Smallpox: A Great and Terrible Scrouge. Accessed September 2021.

v TIME. 2020. A Vaccine Against COVID-19 Would Be the Latest Success in a Long Scientific History. Accessed September 2021.

vi Nature. 2020. Nature Milestones in Vaccines. Accessed September 2021.

vii World Health Organization. 2019. Immunization. Accessed September 2021.