Living in Society

Vaccination, Inoculation the Fight is the Same

New York Times COVID-19 Tracking Map Feb. 26, 2021. Iowa ceased reporting by-county statistics last week.

The science of inoculation for infectious disease has long roots. “Inoculation against smallpox is believed to have been practiced in China as far back as 1000 BC, and is reported to have been common in India, Africa, and Turkey prior to its introduction into western societies in the 18th century,” Matthew Niederhuber wrote while at Harvard University.

There continues to be debate in he United States about inoculation and its cousin vaccination. That is, if by debate one means people jabbering at each other without knowing what the heck they are talking about.

I got the first of two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine the first opportunity I had at 2:15 Central Time on Feb. 26, 2021. I was chair of the county board of health. What would you expect me to do but get it? A vast majority of people should get vaccinated if they have the chance, close to 100% of the population. It is up to government to make sure they have the chance. Whether enough will is an open question.

The program that brought a vaccination clinic to our community — with dozens of volunteers and a sophisticated level of logistical organization and expertise — was part of the Biden-Harris administration’s effort to speed up vaccination by distributing the vaccine through commercial pharmacies. The time line is short and simple. On Feb. 2 — 13 days after inauguration — the White House announced the First Phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination. Three days later, on Feb 5, I received the first of several organizing phone calls to create a mass clinic, a partnership between the local pharmacy, the Solon Senior Advocates and a community church. Yesterday and today is the clinic for which all appointments are taken. The action was swift and effective. It was the result of a president who knows what he is doing in a public health emergency.

The State of Iowa is not that well organized. A Republican lawmaker asserted this week at the State House the pandemic was over. The Iowa Department of Public Health ceased reporting a by-county breakdown of key statistics related to the pandemic. Republicans literally pretend the state is ready to get back to normal even if the coronavirus doesn’t care about that. Surviving a pandemic is one of the reasons we need a strong federal government: states like ours can’t get needed things done.

Our city’s only pharmacy coordinated arrival of the vaccine and the event. They hoped to vaccinate 500 people using Iowa Department of Public Health criteria, including people like me who are more than 65 years old. The clinic is a 65+ only event organized by groups that work with senior citizens constantly.

If we are lucky, and that’s a big if, things will resemble normal again come the end of year holidays or in the first half of 2022. That is a conservative estimate based on input from the scientific community that works with infectious disease.

Let me go back to the first paragraph about the introduction of inoculation to prevent infectious disease in Western societies.

On a November day in 1721, a small bomb was hurled through the window of a local Boston Reverend named Cotton Mather. Attached to the explosive, which fortunately did not detonate, was the message: “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’ll inoculate you with this; with a pox to you.’’ This was not a religiously motivated act of terrorism, but a violent response to Reverend Mather’s active promotion of smallpox inoculation. The smallpox epidemic that struck Boston in 1721 was one of the most deadly of the century in colonial America, but was also the catalyst for the first major application of preventative inoculation in the colonies. The use of inoculation laid the foundation for the modern techniques of infectious diseases prevention, and the contentious public debate that accompanied the introduction of this poorly understood medical technology has surprising similarities to contemporary misunderstandings over vaccination.

The Fight Over Inoculation During the 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic by Matthew Niederhuber, Harvard University

This was the same Cotton Mather involved with the 1692 witchcraft episode in Salem Village. Mather and his father, Increase Mather, are often blamed for a fanning the flames of public hysteria and delusion born of ignorance and superstition of the time regarding witchcraft. Not so fast, wrote historian Stow Persons in American Minds. Witchcraft is more complicated than that. So it is with inoculation and vaccination. Cotton Mather’s redeeming grace, even to the most skeptical modern readers, was related to introduction of inoculation to prevent smallpox. Here’s what you might not know.

Cotton Mather is largely credited with introducing inoculation to the colonies and doing a great deal to promote the use of this method as standard for smallpox prevention during the 1721 epidemic. Mather is believed to have first learned about inoculation from his West African slave Onesimus, writing, “he told me that he had undergone the operation which had given something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it, adding that was often used in West Africa.’’

The Fight Over Inoculation During the 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic by Matthew Niederhuber, Harvard University

During Black History Week I’m highlighting the source of the idea of inoculation and vaccination in Cotton Mather’s African slave. The lessons to take from this weekend’s clinic in Solon are cultures other than American made significant contributions to the science of infectious disease, the federal government must be involved in mitigating a pandemic like the coronavirus, and sticking one’s head in the sand of ignorance won’t get us back to normal in a post pandemic society.

We must act positively in our communities and in conjunction with scientific experts. If such experts are not available at the state level, then we do what we can ourselves, including local coordination of federal programs.