In less than a month, more than 6 million people have been vaccinated in New York. Not today, but in 1947. And not against coronavirus, but against smallpox. The deadly disease was defeated almost instantly.

The deadly disease arrives in New York by bus. In March 1947, a businessman traveling from Mexico City to Maine made a stopover in New York. He didn’t feel well but still went to see the sights of the city. And in an instant, he collapses on the ground. He died ten days later in a New York hospital. In early April, doctors determined that he had died of smallpox.

The then New York Health Commissioner Israel Weinstein did not hesitate for too long. Moreover, other cases of smallpox have already been reported in New York. Weinstein decided to vaccinate the entire population of the city, says Charles DiMaggio, a professor of public health at New York University.

20th century: smallpox takes 400 million victims

Smallpox is one of the most severe infectious diseases in the world. Two out of ten cases end in death, and patients are at risk of blindness, paralysis, or brain damage. In the 20th century alone, nearly 400 million people died of smallpox.

By 1947, most New Yorkers had actually been vaccinated against smallpox. But the outbreak shows that their numbers are insufficient. Vaccine shipments are pouring in from all over the country to New York. Pharmaceutical factories are launching their conveyors at high speeds. Children are vaccinated at school, and improvised immunization centers have been opened for adults throughout the city, including in police stations.

Every citizen of New York is entitled to free vaccinations. During his visit to New York, even President Harry Truman demonstratively rolled up his sleeves in front of the media. Throughout the city, posters are urging citizens to get vaccinated to be safe from the disease.

And people respond. In less than a month, 6.35 million people have been vaccinated. And in early May, Weinstein is now pleased to announce that the danger is over.

Today, it’s completely different

The New York immunization campaign during 1947 was the last major action against smallpox in the United States. The fact that such a campaign will never be necessary again shows that the mass immunization in New York was very successful, says Professor DiMaggio. The public health specialist has great respect for the determination of health authorities back then: “We did very well with mass immunizations back then. We were able to organize such health campaigns, and people looked favorably on these programs. Today is different. Health care is privatized more and more, “says DiMaggio.

He also sees defects in public health: there is an acute shortage of staff in a number of health services. Today we pay a hefty price for these savings. In order to organize the mass vaccination, the city and municipal authorities in the USA are forced to seek help from private clinics and large pharmacy chains, which, however, also do not have the resources to deal with the complex organization. Added to this are suspicions about vaccines that are spreading among the population. According to various polls, about 40% of US citizens do not want to be vaccinated. Nevertheless, the main problem remains the erosion of the public health system, says Professor DiMaggio:

“It’s like a war. In 1947, we had a whole army of people who immediately went to the battlefield. Today, however, we still have to build such an army – as far as it is possible in the conditions of the coronavirus.”

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