Mankind’s Triumph Over Germs

By Dr Paul Lam, Director, Tai Chi for Health Institute


Our ancestors’ lives were so much tougher than ours. They had to build homes practically with their bare hands, endure the vagaries of the weather, work hard for their food, watch out for wild animals and, worse still, fight the many enemies they could not see. They did not know what they are, where they were, how they could stop catching germs, or how to survive them.

I am a little embarrassed to admit that as a family physician I did not know that smallpox killed 500 million people! It destroyed armies and changed nations and killed 30% of people who were infected. I cannot imagine how fearful the world was! The Black Death or Bubonic plague that killed 25-50 million people, about a third of Europe, the ferocity of the disease was even more horrible. The more I found out about history, the more I appreciate where we are now with our medical knowledge and available tools against germs.

During these horrible plagues, our ancestors found ways to cope. Like blind persons, not able to see the germs, they devised various methods. Some “cures” made matters worse. During the Black Death, groups of people such as the Flagellants travelled around Europe. These groups of 50 to 500 hooded and half-naked men would march, sing and thrash themselves with lashes until they were swollen and bloody. Worse still were the anti-Semites. They believed Jewish people were responsible: a classic scapegoat way of laying blame on someone. They murdered thousands and thousands of Jews throughout Europe.

Around 30 to 40% of the population in Europe died from the Black Death. Can you imagine how horrific it was? Can you understand why so many people would thrash themselves or murder innocent people?

Science came to the rescue, we found out it was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pesti, transmitted by fleas and rats. It is well controlled nowadays with good hygiene and effective treatment. Sadly, the WHO estimates there are still 1,000 to 3,000 cases existing in the world today. It is still a triumph for mankind.

Smallpox raged the world in an unthinkable way. In 1776, in America, 50% of the Continental Army soldiers in Quebec fell ill with smallpox. They retreated southward in May because of it. John Adams wrote: “… The smallpox is ten times more terrible than the British, Canadians, and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec.”

Arguably, this defeat preserved the status of the northern British colonies, permitting Canada to become the separate country it is today. 

The next year, George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, ordered mandatory inoculation for troops. But inoculation carries the risk of 0.5- 2% mortality rate. On the other hand, 20-30% of people infected with smallpox will die. Inoculation is quite different from vaccination; the latter is incomparably safer. Check out this link for an excellent explanation of the differences.

Smallpox is estimated to have killed up to 300 million people in the 20th century and around 500 million people in the last 100 years. 30% of sufferers died. The survivors were often left with disabilities like blindness and ugly scars. Considering the world was much less populated then, 500 million was unimaginably horrible!

Do you know that in 1661, the Chinese Emporer Fu-lin died of smallpox? His son became Emperor K’ang at a young age. K’ang survived smallpox and had his children inoculated. He administered the smallpox inoculation through China. The method was to grind the pox scabs and blow the matter into the nostrils. It has around a 2-3% mortality rate. K’ang was very proud that he saved millions of children. He seems to be a caring emperor, I wonder what would he gave to have the smallpox vaccine to save the 2-3% of kids who died from inoculation.

Moving to the UK, in 1694, Queen Mary II of England, age 32, died of Smallpox.

In 1768 Catherine the Great of Russia was inoculated by physician Thomas Dimsdale, with relays of horses at the ready in case the inoculation should go wrong and Dimsdale need to escape from Catherine’s angry subjects. The operation was kept secret, and Catherine recovered successfully. Her inoculation later encouraged others to follow suit. Fancy the powerful Queen gambled her own life! I bet she would gladly have given half her empire for the smallpox vaccine.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823), an English doctor, heard this folk wisdom from a milkmaid: having caught cowpox from a cow, she believed that protected her from Smallpox. Here is a doctor who knew how to listen to the incoming force. I wonder if he had learned tai chi.

5/14/1796 – Jenner successfully tested that infection with cowpox could protect a person from smallpox infection. The word vaccine came from his work: the name for a pox virus—the cowpox virus, vaccinia. Immunization by vaccine is the greatest advance in medicine and had save countless millions of lives, enabling us to live life as it is now.

Immunization is training our bodies’ defense force against germs with a safer stimulant similar to the germ, like army training. If an army has learned and practiced how to fight the enemy, it would have much higher chance to triumph over the enemy in a real battle. The advanced of medicine has enable us to device extremely low risk vaccines that would protect mankind against many devastating germs. 

5/14/1806 – Thomas Jefferson, president of USA, gave full support and deep appreciation to Dr Jenner for the Smallpox vaccine.

The United Kingdom Vaccination Act of 1853 made smallpox vaccination mandatory in the first three months of an infant’s life. A parent’s penalty for not complying was a fine or imprisonment. Other countries joined in to administer the vaccine.

1980, WHO declared that mankind has eradicated Smallpox! The vaccine is the key, but it only worked with the united effort from all the countries in the world! WHO did incredible work to bring immunization to people in less prosperous countries. I wonder if a percentage of people chose not to participate in the immunization program, would we still have eradicated smallpox?

I still remember seeing people with pox scars all over their faces in my childhood. Let us remember the horror it delivered to mankind. 500 million lives is not a lesson to forget!

I shall never forget other nasty germs like diphtheria. It was the number 1 infant killer. Community immunization for the public began in 1932. But in Southeast Asia, it would be many more years before they had the vaccine. I nearly died from diphtheria at 6 months of age. Two of my cousins were not so lucky; they perished. Sadly, so did millions of children from Southeast Asia until the vaccine became affordable. 
If we stop childhood immunization, we will see many kids suffer or die from diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, mumps, and rubella. Mumps can cause infertility in boys and rubella causes deformity in pregnant women. Tetanus, whooping cough, and measles all kill people. Billions of triple antigens were given to children around the world. The side effects are extremely rare. These vaccines are becoming more effective with fewer side effects. I knew firsthand, I gave countless triple antigens. I hate giving injections, so I learned every trick possible to do it with less pain. Some of my patients grew into parents, and remembering the painless needle, they travelled long distances to bring their kids to me for immunizations. I love that, but still don’t like giving the jab or getting it.
The world is in crisis with the pandemic, but COVID-19 is not as vicious as smallpox or the Black Death plague. Though we are all affected, sadly 4.4 million people already perished. Imagine that we let go and take the risk of exposing everyone to the coronavirus. Many more would have perished, including young and healthy adults. Hospitals would be much more overflowing (they already are in many countries). The world would be in worse chaos, many more people would die in other conditions because of lack of medical facilities. 
Do we want to see that happen? While we have the science and technology to prevent it? At this time, 4.91 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally. They are closely monitored so that the effects and side effects are public knowledge. 
I have to admit I was so confident in my strong immunity because of tai chi, I got my first COVID-19 jab only because I did not want to be a carrier to infect others especially my friends. By the time of the second dose, I was so glad to be protected. How can I be sure that tai chi can protect me against the coronavirus? Even young healthy athletes perished. Though studies did show tai chi with vaccine gets the highest level of immunity.
We humans are social animals and need other people. The mental effect of isolation for such a long time is devastating. Mental health professionals predicted the impact could be worse than the damage COVID-19 did now. 
The sooner we can overcome this, the less damage would be done to the entire world. Unlike Black Death, we have a solution, backed by irrefutable evidence. I see hope that 4.91 billion doses of vaccine have been administered, and 32 million more daily. Like smallpox, with the vaccine, we triumph. It was eradicated. Because of the vaccine, now no one needs vaccines against smallpox any longer.
Medical experts often disagree among themselves. But for the pandemic, all experts have a consensus – get vaccinated as soon as possible. To the best of my knowledge, all credible epidemiologists around the world agree on the same direction. What is there to stop us from following the experts’ advice?

If we work together using medical science, like with smallpox, we will triumph over COVID-19. The alternative of letting people die from it is inhumane.

If you wish to help provide COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries, check out Unicef’s appeal. 


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