Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Smallpox in Fitchburg

From Time magazine:

Smallpox appeared in Fitchburg, Mass. a fortnight ago. The first few cases aroused only routine precautions on the part of the Board of Health...

By the beginning of last week...Fitchburg had 15 cases. To the community of 40,690 that was EPIDEMIC. [The mayor] issued a proclamation that everyone get vaccinated. [The] chairman of the Board of Health,marshaled the city's doctors. One day 2,500 people lined up for vaccination, another day 3,700.

But not all of excited Fitchburg was tractable. Mrs. Jessica Henderson of Boston had appeared to represent the Citizens Committee Against Vaccination. Go to jail, she cried, rather than be vaccinated. Pay the...fine and keep your blood uncontaminated....

Other recalcitrants ceased their stubbornness when merchants clamored about loss of business. Residents of small towns near Fitchburg were staying away in fear. Pressure of Business and Medicine won. At the beginning of this week only 30 inhabitants out of 40,690 were known to have avoided vaccination.
OK. So there isn't smallpox in Fitchburg. But there was an outbreak during the winter on 1932, as reported by Time magazine. I was snooping through Time's archives just for the heck of it the other day and clicked on a story about Franklin Roosevelt's announcement for president. I stumbled across this article in the same February 1, 1932 issue.

In the end there were 60 reported cases of smallpox, nearly all in Cleghorn. Amazingly, it took just five days to vaccinate or re-vaccinate nearly all 40,000 residents. It's hard to get an idea, some 50 years after smallpox was eradicated in the US, what this sort of an outbreak would be like. How would it compare? Perhaps if there were 60 cases of bacterial meningitis or tuberculosis? What kind of effect would that have on the city today?

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