Genealogy study – the argument for vaccinations

Debate continues to rage among sectors of the population about the rapidly developed vaccinations against Covid-19.

Our attention was drawn to a recent tweet where someone had talked about his family—an uncle who survived polio and was now 70, and another who caught scarlet fever that resulted in pancreatic failure, and was dead at 36.

The tweet ended with the message that everyone in his family got vaccinated. Responding to it, one Twitter user pointed out that anyone with an interest in genealogy would find plenty of deaths from diseases that are now vaccine preventable in their family tree, and many others jumped in, agreeing with the statement.

Infectious diseases

With 2020-21 the obvious exception, when the UK’s NHS was established 73 years ago, infectious diseases were far more prevalent (2020-21 being the obvious exception). A lot of our time is spent ploughing through census records and death certificates, and you do not need to go that far back to find infectious diseases as the cause of death.

Aside from Covid-19, the last major outbreak of an infectious disease was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920. World-wide, it killed between 20 and 50 million people, and 200,000 people in the UK, about 0.5 percent of the pre-war population.

But many other diseases killed people in the 19th and early 20th centuries before vaccinations were created that have more or less extinguished deaths from such causes in the 21st century.

Highly contagious

They include diphtheria, a highly infectious condition that can lead to kidney and bleeding problems and an abnormal heart rate and was most likely to affect and kill children. One of its more famous victims was Princess Alice, the daughter of Queen Victoria who died after she and her family contracted the disease in 1878 at the age of 35. Her four-year-old daughter, Princess Marie also died.

A vaccination against diphtheria was created in 1926 and the first dose is generally given to babies at around six weeks of age, later doses taking place during childhood.

Whooping cough is another highly contagious condition that often killed babies and children. The vaccination came into being in 1914, and the mass vaccination programme was introduced in the 1950s, greatly reducing the number of outbreaks.

Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccination

One of the most famous vaccination stories is Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccination. Another highly infectious disease, smallpox is thought to have lived alongside humans for thousands of years – mummies from 3rd century BCE Egyptian tombs have been found to have it.

Jenner carried out a famous experiment in 1796, when he inserted pus extracted from a cowpox pustule on a milkmaid’s hand, into an incision on the arm of an eight-year-old boy. He followed country folklore that claimed people who developed the milder cowpox never caught smallpox and his reasoning proved sound, leading the way for the smallpox vaccination, which led to the extinction of the disease in many countries.

As everyone who has studied their family history will know, infectious diseases were responsible for many premature deaths, and had a significant effect on overall mortality. In 1915, for example, the UK’s average life expectancy at birth for a man was 48.4 years and 54 for women, whereas by 2015, it was 79.3 and 82.9 respectively. A salutary lesson indeed.

 

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