The time when smallpox was a big problem

Craven Herald: Patients line up outside the Otley Street surgery in Skipton Patients line up outside the Otley Street surgery in Skipton
Fifty years ago, Craven was hit by a smallpox scare, causing widespread concern. Reporter Lesley Tate looks back on how the outbreak started and what steps were taken to contain the disease.

He was just nine when, 50 years ago, Clive White was taken by his mother to be vaccinated against smallpox.

There had been an outbreak of the potentially fatal disease in Bradford, brought into the country by a nine-year-old girl, who had arrived just a month earlier from her home country of Pakistan.

In an effort to contain the disease and stop it spreading, all 900 known direct and indirect contacts of the girl, who later died, were traced, observed and if necessary, isolated in hospitals.

Over a period of four days, around 250,000 people were vaccinated, not only in Bradford, but several miles away in Skipton where a girl who had been in the same ward as the Pakistani girl had family.

The Craven Herald printed a picture of a vast queue outside the doctors’ surgery in Otley Street, Skipton, of people who chose to take the precaution of being vaccinated.

The paper also carried announcements of vaccination sessions at Otley Street, the town’s Clifford House and Mevell Hall in Gargrave and when people needed to return to have them checked for scabbing – proof that the vaccination had worked.

“I remember we had to join a queue of people outside the doctors’ surgery. The vaccination itself was like a scratch and I had to go back a few days later to have it checked,” said Clive, now a reporter for the Craven Herald.

“My sister, who had just been born, wasn’t allowed out of the house.”

Less than a month after the outbreak, the Bradford medical health officer, Dr John Douglas, announced it was over. Since the confirmed case of the Pakistani girl on January 11, there had been an additional ten cases, and in total, six of them had died – a particulary high death rate.

One of the confirmed cases was a three-year-old girl from Skipton, who had been in the Bradford Children’s Hospital at the same time a hospital cook contracted the disease and died.

Four hospitals – three in Bradford and the Wharfedale Children’s Hospital in Menston – were placed in quarantine, all patients and staff were vaccinated and all suspected cases were transferred to Oakwell Hospital in Birstall, Leeds.

The mother of the three-year-old Skipton girl, one of five to be transferred from the children’s hospital to Oakwell, told the Craven Herald that she had no idea when she would be allowed to visit her daughter. Waiting lists for the Skipton Hospital, and at hospitals in Keighley and Bingley, were suspended in case beds were needed for smallpox victims and visiting was suspended at Grassington Hospital because of the large number of Pakistani patients.

There were 14 known contacts in the Craven health division from the confirmed cases at the Bradford Children’s Hospital and the Wharfedale Children’s Hospital and from the suspected case at Otley General Hospital. Each contact was visited immediately, vaccinated along with other members of the family, and kept under surveillance by health department staff.

There were no known contacts outside Silsden, Skipton and Grassington, although one child in Upper Wharfedale and another in West Craven, were put under surveillance, but later cleared.

There were no proven cases of smallpox in Craven – even the confirmed Skipton three-year-old was not classed as Craven as she had been admitted to the Bradford Children’s Hospital in the September before the outbreak and had not been back to the town since.

The outbreak was officially declared over in the Craven Herald of February 16. The Bradford medical health officer, Dr Douglas, said the death rate during the outbreak had been high, despite the efficient actions of the health staff.

Dr Douglas, in a report in the Medical Journal, reported that the cause of the outbreak, the girl, had arrived by air with her parents from Karachi in December and within a few days had been admitted to the Bradford Children’s Hospital with malaria. The child died, but by the time the cause of death had been established, other people had contracted the disease.

The task of tracking down all known contacts was difficult. There was a huge number of people visiting the hospital in Bradford, some children had been discharged home and others transferred to different hospitals.

The girl had – along with her parents – been vaccinated against smallpox twice and had certificates as proof.

A possibility that the certificates had been forged was ruled out, but the child’s father reported that following the second vaccination, his daughter’s arm had gone red, but no scab had formed – leading to the conclusion it was probable the revaccination had not been successful. Dr Douglas reported: “Almost exactly one month after coming to light, it was possible to announce that the outbreak was over. This achievement speaks well of the diligence of the medical officers and staff of the department and the hospitals and adjacent authorities who undertook the painstaking task of tracing and vaccinating such a large number of contacts, and who subsequently kept these contacts under surveillance until the risk of infection had passed.”

An estimated 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century.

One of the last major European outbreaks was in Yugoslavia in 1972. Martial law was declared in an attempt to control it, but despite quarantine and mass vaccination of almost the entire population of 18 million, the epidemic infected 175 people and claimed 35 lives.

The last natural case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977. A year later, a medical photographer at the University of Birmingham was infected and later died.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the eradication of smallpox in 1980 and went on to lobby for the number of laboratories holding samples of the virus to be reduced. In 1984, it was agreed that smallpox be kept in only two WHO-approved laboratories, in Russia and the United States.

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