Tuesday, February 23, 2010

23 February 1904: Smallpox Scare Closes Athens Schools For A Week

On this day in 1904, the Athens Banner reported that the city's Board of Health decided to close schools for the rest of the week "merely as a precautionary measure" due to a few cases of smallpox reported in the schools. The Board hoped "it could be seen whether or not any spread comes from the presence of those children in the schools before they were quarantined." At the time, the city had only "three or four cases in the entire city, all of them under proper quarantine," and had fewer cases in the past several years than normal. The paper reported no deaths or serious illnesses during the week, and on Sunday ran a short notice that the schools would be open and children expected in the morning.

Though the Georgia General Assembly had banned smallpox vaccinations in 1768 to avoid spreading the disease to the unvaccinated, by the time the State Department of Health was established in 1875, one of its primary duties was supplying smallpox vaccines to the state. Within their first decade, they had furnished 180,850 vaccinations to the state, but many still went unvaccinated.

The U. S. Biologics Control Act of 1902 allowed for regulation of vaccines after a tetanus outbreak from contaminated vaccine spread around the country. However, regulation was slow to take hold, and pharmaceutical companies often sold discounted vaccines past their expiration date to state health departments. Many Americans waited as long as possible or avoided giving their children the vaccinations whenever possible, as a less deadly strain of smallpox was the predominant form in the United States by then.

The last case of smallpox in the United States was recorded in 1949, and by 1977, after a 10-year campaign by the World Health Organization, the disease had been eradicated globally.

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