I have one of these scars, as do many people in my age. I actually once heard a teenager on the bus wondering about the scars many older people have on their arms. Here are David Bowie and Iman’s smallpox vaccination scars.
Smallpox was eradicated by 1979 and samples of it remain only in two highly guarded laboratories. Apparently this is to help in researching similar viruses, and also in the event of biological warfare, if there needs to be live samples to test better vaccines.
After the vaccination, blisters forms at the vaccination area, crusted over, and healed in a couple of weeks. At the end it leaves a round scar.
To deliver the vaccine, a bifurcated needle was dipped into the Vaccinia solution and the individual’s arm was poked several times. A small amount of the vaccine was deposited each time the needle broke the skin and blisters formed. This explains why the scars are so large.
Right after the vaccine there is a small swelling at the vaccination site which persists for 6-8 hours. Then, the swelling disappears and the vaccination site looks normal. 6-8 weeks later a swelling appears again which looks like a mosquito bite. It starts to grow and forms a nodule which breaks open and discharges some fluid and forms an ulcer. The ulcer heals by forming a scar. This entire process takes 2-5 weeks. There are times when this process of ulceration and healing recurs 2-3 times. The formed scar remains for lifetime.
Smallpox was no longer present in most of the Western world after the early 1970’s, so vaccination wasn’t needed unless a person was travelling to a country where the virus was still present.
The Variola virus was certified to have been eradicated from the world’s population in 1980’s and this smallpox vaccination was stopped completely.
Historian Jennifer Keelan says a vaccine scar was a way to prove you weren’t a threat to your family and community.
“It was literally like wearing a vaccination record right on your arm,” Keelan said. “The more prominent the more clear—in some cases they thought the more discrete the scars there were–the better indication that you actually were protected from smallpox.”
Keelan writes about smallpox epidemics and teaches in the Department of Public Health at Concordia University of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
To stop smallpox, the United States and other countries inspected immigrants at the border.
Smallpox is highly contagious, but Keelan says it’s a somewhat apocryphal story often told over and over in the middle of a smallpox scare: “It always comes from away. They come in by train with a bit of a fever, and they land smack dab in the middle of your city, they infect thousands of people and then your entire city is overthrown by this epidemic.”
Countries also passed compulsory vaccine laws for citizens.
“Public health officials and local police would ask people to roll up their sleeves before they entered schools, before they entered factories, before they boarded trains or ships,” said Michael Willrich, a Brandeis University professor whose book is “Pox: An American History.”
“In tenement districts in American cities, vaccination squads would go through during epidemics and check people for vaccination scars, and if they didn’t have them, often vaccinated them against their will,” Willrich said.
I have had to take many vaccines during my travels in Africa – cholera, yellow fever, rabies, tetanus, Hepatitis and B. Rabies, for example is 100% fatal so I never take any chances. I take also Malarone against malaria if necessary. I don’t take annual flu shots though. And I am not for compulsory vaccination. I always just hope that if as many people as possible do take the vaccine, we will protect those that are not vaccinated from being infected, and that they will not infect us if infected. I realise that, coming from Africa as I do, I may have a different view of vaccinations than someone who lives in an area without rampant disease.