An historic smallpox anti-vaccination advertisement.
Vaccination using the cowpox virus became a primary defence against smallpox. Image by AP

Smallpox eradication claim denies vaccine evidence

AAP FactCheck March 1, 2022

Health measures pioneered in Victorian England eradicated smallpox, not the vaccine.


False. Vaccination eradicated smallpox; health measures helped control the disease.

As COVID-19 misinformation continues to spread, an online essay has attempted to draw parallels between the current anti-vaccination movement and that of Victorian England.

It claims smallpox was not eradicated by a vaccine, saying other health measures – first introduced in the English city of Leicester in the 1800s – were instead responsible for eliminating the disease.

This is false. Experts told AAP FactCheck the measures helped control the disease to an extent, but smallpox would not have been eradicated without a vaccine.

The author of the essay, shared on US digital platform Substack on February 14, is described only as “A Midwestern Doctor”.

“The smallpox pandemic response was eerily similar to COVID,” it says, claiming protests such as those in Canada are “almost identical to what happened with the smallpox vaccination campaigns over a century ago”.

The post has gained traction across social media, amplified by Steve Kirsch, a technology millionaire whose claims have been debunked for spreading COVID misinformation – see here and here.

This claim, or variations on it, have been shared multiple times on Facebook – here, here and here – often by groups against pandemic restrictions and mandates.

An image of a vaccination protest shared with the Substack post is frequently captioned as the Leicester protest, but is from Toronto, Canada in 1919.

The basis of the claim has its origins in a smallpox anti-vaccination movement in the East Midlands region of England in the late 1800s.

Smallpox had been one of the world’s biggest killers, but a breakthrough was made in 1796 when British scientist Edward Jenner discovered a way to inoculate people.

He introduced a small amount of cowpox from an infected person to a child to develop resistance to smallpox. His work is regarded as the “foundation of immunology“.

However, there was resistance from fearful members of the public. The British government made smallpox vaccination mandatory for children born after August 1, 1853 and anti-vaccination leagues soon sprang up around the UK.

Many had concerns about safety while some objected to the injection of a substance from a “diseased animal” – there even were claims vaccine recipients would grow horns.

Leicester became a centre of anti-vaccination demonstrations and one protest in 1885 drew 50,000 people, according to reports.

The essay author claims as a result of such protests “Leicester’s government was replaced, mandatory vaccination abolished, and public health measures rejected by the medical community were implemented”.

“These measures were highly successful, and once adopted globally ended the smallpox epidemic, something most erroneously believe arose from vaccination.”

The health measures, which later became known as the Leicester Method, included prompt notifications of cases and isolation, quarantine for close contacts, and disinfection of their premises. Many aspects can be seen in modern pandemic protocols.

The essay further tries to draw parallels with today, claiming these health measures were initially rejected by the medical community.

Experts told AAP FactCheck the claim is far from the truth.

Michael Bennett, emeritus professor of history at the University of Tasmania and author of the 2020 book War Against Smallpox: Edward Jenner and the Global Spread of Vaccination, said the Leicester Method was created under the leadership of health officers who believed in vaccination but recognised community hostility.

Owen Gower, a historian and general manager at the Jenner Trust, a UK museum and educational centre dedicated to Dr Jenner’s work, said the Leicester Method emerged out of necessity.

“It was implemented by the Local Board of Health who, faced with an under-vaccinated population, had no choice but to enact other measures to control the spread of the disease,” he said in an email.

Stuart M.F. Fraser, who discussed the Leicester Method in a 1980 paper for Medical History, said it was “devised and advised by a person believing in the value of vaccination, but realising its limitations”.

Regardless, the Leicester Method was advanced for its time and achieved some success. Aspects would later be applied across the world but experts told AAP FactCheck the vaccine ultimately eradicated smallpox.

“The Leicester Method was able to suppress outbreaks and keep the town relatively ‘safe’ for a decade or so,” Prof Bennett said in an email.

But he said the method had pitfalls.

“The system was expensive, required a high level of community commitment and, of course, people from Leicester had no immunity when they went anywhere else.”

Prof Bennett added: “The measures suppressed spot-fires, keeping Leicester safe for a number of years, but they can hardly be said to have ended ‘the smallpox epidemic.

“Vaccination (and revaccination) was essential to the eradication of smallpox. Quarantine measures, well-established prior to vaccination, played their part but could not have achieved that outcome alone.”

Statistics compiled in the late 1800s show the early impact of the vaccine.

Smallpox deaths in London and the rest of Europe consistently fell through the 1800s, except for a spike around the outbreak of 1870-1874. Although the outbreak was severe, a 1933 address to the Royal Society of Medicine states: “…The annual average death rate in pre-vaccination times was more than three times the death rate of the epidemic of the (1870s)” (page 181).

Mr Gower noted the virus does not exist today outside of two secure laboratories.

“Again, this could not have been achieved without vaccination. The historical evidence is clear: vaccination was crucial in controlling smallpox and saving lives,” he said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization both state that the success of vaccination led to smallpox’s elimination.

Smallpox, estimated to have killed at least 300 million people in the 20th century, was declared eradicated in 1980 after a global vaccination program which began in 1959. It remains the only human disease to be eliminated.

The Verdict

Smallpox, one of the world’s deadliest diseases, was eliminated by 1980 through a co-ordinated global vaccination effort. Health measures introduced in Leicester in the 1880s helped slow the spread but it is not correct to say they alone eradicated smallpox.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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