Smallpox epidemic in Wroclaw. How did we manage to vaccinate millions?

The last smallpox epidemic in Poland broke out in the summer of 1963 in Wroclaw. The city was cut off from the rest of the country by a sanitary cordon, and the authorities of People’s Republic of Poland considered mandatory vaccination a necessary condition for eradication of the plague. How then was it possible to vaccinate every fifth inhabitant of the country, if at the beginning there were not even enough doses for the inhabitants of Wrocław?

Where did smallpox come from in Poland?

According to the Epidemiology Department of the National Institute of Hygiene smallpox was endemic in Poland until 1924.

In several previous years an average of 5000 cases were reported annually. Thanks to mass vaccination, this number was reduced to only a few dozen patients by 1930, and five years later Poland became a disease-free country.

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A similar trend could be observed in other European countries. With the exception of incidents originating in Portugal and Spain, the Old Continent dealt with smallpox as late as the interwar period, and the virus finally stopped plaguing this part of the world in 1952.

There were, of course, occasional cases when a patient brought the disease with him from one of the countries where smallpox was still wreaking havoc. In 1962, the most serious outbreaks were in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, where several to tens of thousands of cases were reported.

Thus, in the summer of 1963, Bonifacy Jedynak, an officer of the Security Service, brought smallpox to Wrocław from a business trip to India.

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A nurse named Lonia Kowalczyk died on July 8th. Her mother was an orderly and she cleaned the isolation room where Bonifacy Jedynak was staying. The woman went through smallpox but recovered. The daughter was not so lucky. Mainly because she was misdiagnosed, ruled to have leukemia.

The possibility of a smallpox epidemic, which Poland had finally gotten rid of many years earlier, took a while to reach the doctors’ consciousness. Two other patients were also not diagnosed with the correct virus and were thought to have chickenpox, a much milder disease, and would soon recover. The men died a short time later.

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The authorities sealed off the city from the rest of the country with a cordon sanitaire and intensively searched for people who might have come into contact with the sick. These people were sent to isolation centers, a hospital was also organized exclusively for diagnosed patients.

As part of preventive measures, a large-scale vaccination campaign was launched.

Eight million Poles vaccinated

Authorities have identified vaccination as one of the key steps to eradicating smallpox. The problem is that as of mid-July, the country had only. 155,000 doses. At first, therefore, vaccination was voluntary.

Public interest has exceeded the expectations of those in power. According to Dr. Grazyna Trzaskowska, a researcher of the smallpox epidemic in Wroclaw, only during the first three days 124 thousand people were vaccinated, and since July 22 (five days after the start of the vaccinations) – 180 thousand. A year earlier about 200 thousand people were vaccinated against smallpox in total.

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The missing vaccines (four million doses) were supplied by the Union of Vaccine and Vaccine Manufacturers in Warsaw; supplies were also sent from the Soviet Union and Hungary. With the supply of medicine, the authorities were able to decide on mandatory vaccinations. It was formally introduced on August 6 for the then Wrocław and Opole Voivodeships. Eleven days later, the provision became effective nationwide.

A total of 8.2 million people were vaccinated in Poland as part of the campaign.

Arrest and fines for avoiding vaccination

As the opening photograph of the article indicates, the authorities tried to check everyone who entered or left Wrocław. On the main roads leading to the capital of Lower Silesia, 24-hour checkpoints for vaccination certificates were introduced.

Anyone who did not have such a certificate was sent to the nearest vaccination centre.

The penalties for evading the obligation to vaccinate ranged from a fine to three months’ imprisonment. People with medical contraindications were also vaccinated. Adverse reactions were observed in one thousand of the vaccinated, nine people died.

Contrary to the gloomy scenario outlined by the WHO, the smallpox epidemic in Wroclaw ended relatively quickly on September 19, 1963, when the last people exposed to the disease had completed their quarantine.

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