Inoculations and vaccinations of long ago

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 8 2021
Columns Inoculations and vaccinations of long ago

In all the hullabaloo of vaccinations being given against COVID-19 in Colombo and its suburbs, my mind went back to vaccinations we underwent in our youth more than half a century ago.

This was the second thought as I bared my upper arm to get the blessed Oxford vaccine to prevent death even if I do get the cursed COVID-19. The first was gratitude to the Government of Sri Lanka and its Health Department and Health Services for so quickly getting down the vaccine from India and using it without delay. I also thought gratefully of the scientists in various countries working against time who developed vaccines for the deadly COVID-19 in such a short time, sufficiently testing it too, while normally it takes two to three years to successfully develop a vaccine for even less deadly viruses.

Small pox

Small pox was a deadly; completely disfiguring infectious disease which was first traced to 3 century BC Egypt. In the 18th century, Europe lost 400,000 to the disease and 300,000 in the 20th century.  Inoculation in China was effective from the 16th C. We know how widespread the disease was in India. Then in1796 Edward Jenner (1749-1823), an English physician and scientist, pioneered the concept of vaccines including creating the smallpox vaccine, the world’s first. The terms vaccine and vaccination are derived from Variolae vaccinae, the term devised by Jenner to denote cowpox. Almost two centuries after Jenner hoped that vaccination could annihilate smallpox, the 33rd World Health Assembly declared the world free of this disease on 8 May 1980. Many people consider the eradication of smallpox to be the biggest achievement in international public health. So in our youth in the 1950s and 60s, we underwent the once given vaccination against smallpox which was actually rare in our country. However, vaccination was mandatory and child’s play to us as we were only scratched with a pen resembling the ones we used to write with, dipping into inkwells at the right hand top of our classroom desks. It was not painful nor fever producing. Its only fault was leaving an indelible scar; hence our receiving the vaccine on our thighs.


This feaces contaminated water-borne disease, also known as enteric fever, was very much with us in our youth. In fact my sister contracted it and was warded at Planters’ Ward in the Kandy General Hospital, envied by very young me who felt she was hogging all the family attention and at Christmas, the Burgher nurses in the ward decorated her room and gifted her a cuddly toy dog! But my sister hovered between life and death, and was made immobile with a wicker contraption placed over her. It was only palliative treatment then: rest stomach and intestines; until antibiotics were discovered. We were inoculated twice within ten days to prevent typhoid fever; very painful and causing subsequent fever.  

Polio – completely scary

Poliomyelitis stalked Ceylon in the early and mid 20th C. I remember I was a senior student when we were warned against the spread of this death or crippling disease. Our prevention was gargling as pronounced mandatory by our hostel Matron with a huge jug of condis at the ready. In 1955 Jonas Salk (1914-1995) used inactivated polio virus to inoculate and in 1960 developed a live, attenuated oral vaccine. The Polish Albert Sabin (1906-1973) also developed a vaccine after studying in the US, UK and working in Israel. Our children benefited by these pioneering efforts.


TB scoured the world and killed innumerable international figures including Kamala, Jawaharlal Nehru’s wife. So many British poets were decimated by this disease where you finally coughed out blood. I know of many cases in Sri Lanka. Prevention and beating the disease was by taking nourishing food, plenty of rest in a hot dry climate. Subsequent to the discovery of antibiotics, a combination of drugs cure patients now. 

Children’s vaccination

It was soon enough the turn of our children to be vaccinated. The first was the Pertussis vaccine offered as a triple vaccine, including tetanus and diphtheria. The three month baby cried mildly only after the shot was given, but a month older kid resisted the moment the doctor held his/her arm to give the second dose. I marvelled at my kids’ remembering powers.

Humanity is deeply grateful to all researchers and formulators of vaccines and those who ensure community health. But nature of course strikes back. Small pox was completely eradicated and vaccines are available for influenza, measles and chicken pox. But Nature gets annoyed with its abuse by mankind and so newer organisms evolve to keep population numbers down.


CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 8 2021

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