Yellow fever doesn’t have the cachet of the Black Death or the Asian flu, but the mosquito-borne disease nicknamed “the American Plague” has tormented the world for centuries.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the virus causes 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths each year, and not just in the tropics. The disease first struck New York City in 1668, followed by at least 25 major outbreaks in the Americas, including an 1878 epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that killed 20,000 people.
There is a vaccine, developed after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 by scientists throughout the world. However, historically it needed to be freeze-dried, a process prone to mechanical issues until it was refined in the early 1950s by National Drug in the small hamlet of Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.
You can read the story of this and other vaccine innovations in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought to revolutionize healthcare in America.
The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep America.
In the late 1800s, smallpox ravaged the nation. In New York City, the mid-century death rate from the disease hit 21.9 people per 100,000. In nearby Pennsylvania, by 1900 the disease had killed thousands.
There was a vaccine. And it worked. Some of the time. And there were side-effects.
The solution? A cross-cultural effort that combined French ingenuity with American innovation.
You can read the full story in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought the odds to revolutionize healthcare in America.
The novel coronavirus is sweeping the world. How does a vaccine-maker meet that challenge?
More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Richard Slee faced a similar situation with another virulent disease–smallpox. His fight provides a window into that process, and a cause for hope.
First, some background on one of the unsung pioneers of medicine. (His story appears in detail in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater.) Slee was born in 1867, a golden age of American expansion. He became a physician and went to work for the surgeon general of the Army, later the United States, a forward thinker who was concerned about the spread of smallpox. Pandemics in sixteenth-century Mexico killed 3.5 million people and accounted for nearly 9% of all deaths in nineteenth-century England. By the late 1800s, similar outbreaks were ravaging major cities in the United States.
The irony was, Americans had access to a vaccine. It just had some serious side effects, and that generated a public backlash. The French, on the other hand, had developed a safer version. The surgeon general wanted to manufacture it in the United States, and sent Slee to France to learn the secret.
Slee returned with a glowing report. Not only was the French formula more efficient, it had fewer side effects. As a bonus, it offered a longer shelf life, essential to any medicine that isn’t immediately used.
The surgeon general was so impressed, he encouraged Slee to build his own facility to manufacture the vaccine.
The rest, as they say, is history.