Severe reactions to vaccination

Doctor vaccinating a woman in Wales in 1962
A doctor vaccinating a woman in 1962 (Copyright ITV Wales)

During the smallpox outbreak of 1962, it was estimated that around 900,000 people were vaccinated (or revaccinated) in south Wales. The official report on the outbreak, published the following year, gave details of adverse reactions (‘vaccination complications’) in the area, including seven deaths.

Overall, the figures show a relatively small number of problems associated with the vaccination of almost a million people during an outbreak in which 19 people died from the virus.

Twenty-six people showed symptoms of Generalised Vaccinia after receiving the jab. Of these, nine cases were considered severe and one person died. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): ‘Generalized vaccinia is a disseminated vesicular or pustular rash and is usually benign and self-limited among ‘immunocompetent’ hosts. First-time vaccinees are at higher risk for generalized vaccinia than revaccinees. Generalized vaccinia is often more severe among persons with underlying immunodeficiency who might have been inadvertently vaccinated’.

There were eight cases in south Wales of Eczema Vaccinatum among those who were vaccinated. Three of these cases were described as severe and one man died. The CDC website says: ‘Eczema vaccinatum is a localized or systemic spread of vaccinia virus. It occurs most often in vaccine recipients who have a history of atopic dermatitis. The rash is often accompanied by fever and lymphadenopathy, and affected persons are frequently systemically ill. Eczema vaccinatum tends to be most severe among first-time vaccinees, unvaccinated close contacts of vaccinees, and young children. It can be fatal’.

There were also 17 cases of Eczema Vaccinatum among people who had not been vaccinated but were in contact with cases of smallpox. Five of these were severe and one person in this category died.

There were 17 cases of Post-vaccinal Encephalomyelitis, two of whom died. The CDC describe this as a central nervous system disease which is most common among infants aged less than 12 months. ‘Clinical symptoms reflect cerebral or cerebellar dysfunction with headache, fever, vomiting, altered mental status, lethargy, seizures, and coma.’

There were also two further fatalities in south Wales in which smallpox vaccination was recorded as one of the causes of death on the Death Certificate.

Several people have contacted this site with evidence of their own reactions to the smallpox vaccination, which the 1963 official report refers to: ‘Apart from the more serious complications just discussed, widespread vaccination leads to a considerable number of reactions and these give rise to an increase in sick absence. This is particularly so in an area where employment is of the heavy manual type [as was the case in south Wales in the 1960s].’

Sources: Reports on Public Health and Medical Subjects No. 109: Smallpox 1961-62 (London HMSO 1963); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA.

History of vaccination

With the imminent arrival of vaccination for Covid19, there is an increased interest in the history of vaccination for a range of illnesses. Manchester University Press published in 2019 an informative book by Gareth Millward called Vaccinating Britain – Mass vaccination and the public since the Second World War, which is available online on the website of the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The chapter on Smallpox is available here. It includes discussion on the history of compulsory vaccination and the switch to making it a free choice.

There are also chapters on Diphtheria and Polio, and the ‘vaccination crises’ over Rubella and MMR. Below is an extract from the Smallpox chapter focusing on the 1960s, which included the outbreak covered on this website.

Extract from Vaccinating Britain (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Contact tracing for Covid-19 – lessons from 1962

Nimrod Griffiths – Health Inspector in the front line in 1962. Photo (c) ITV Wales

Controlling the next phase of the 2020 coronavirus outbreak is likely to depend on contact tracing – tracking down anyone who has been in contact with a person showing symptoms of the virus.
It will involve tracing anyone who has come into close contact with someone who has tested positive and advising them to self-isolate to stop further spread.
There are lessons to be learned from one of the last big contact-tracing exercises – carried out almost 60 years ago during the smallpox outbreak of 1962.
The BBC published this report on 7 June 2020.

Volunteer nurse presented with engraved watch

This watch was presented to Violet Torode, who volunteered to nurse smallpox patients isolated at Heddfan Hospital near Bridgend during the 1962 outbreak.

The inscription reads ‘South Wales Smallpox Outbreak 1962 – Volunteer Nursing – Presented to Nurse Violet A Torode’. Nurse Torode’s grand-daughter, Sarah Raybould, contacted the site to ask whether we knew anything about these watches.

‘The watch is just beautiful and a mark of the gratitude from the authorities to the nursing staff who put their own lives at risk during this time,’ she said. ‘The watch still does keep time, when wound up, though it is too precious to our family to wear it often.

‘Mam Torode (my grandmother) did not speak much about that time, in fact, she kept her stories to herself, in most respects so mum did not know too much about her experience then.

‘My mum was actually doing her nursing training up in Hammersmith Hospital when her mother volunteered and she said it was not spoken about.  I asked her if she’d been worried, and she said with the little information she’d been given, she hadn’t really worried about her mum, so it must have been pretty hush hush.’

Last smallpox outbreak in Britain – 40 years ago

IN August 1978, Birmingham was the scene of the last case of smallpox in Britain.  Janet Parker, a medical photographer at the University of Birmingham, was accidentally infected with smallpox and later died at East Birmingham Hospital. Her illness was initially diagnosed as a drug rash, but soon afterwards pustules appeared on her body. Mrs Parker’s mother also developed smallpox, but survived. The ensuing investigation never established exactly how the smallpox virus had escaped from the university’s laboratory.

BBC report on the last death from Smallpox in the UK.

Baby isolated at East Glamorgan Hospital

Alan Bennett contacted Smallpox1962 with this moving report of the impact of the outbreak on his family, 51 years ago.

On 7 February 1962 my second daughter was born at East Glamorgan Hospital. Mother and daughter were released a week later. A midwife visited the baby for the next ten working days. My wife Joan became anxious towards the ends of the midwife’s visits she felt that there was something wrong with the baby. On the last day, expressing her concerns to the midwife, the midwife asked if the baby was feeding and sleeping normally. Yes. No problem then! As she was leaving, my wife still expressing her concern, the midwife decided to return to the baby to check her temperature. 103 and the baby was collected and returned to East Glamorgan Hospital alone. Continue reading

Smallpox site clocks up 20,000 hits in nine months

The Smallpox 1962 website recorded more than 20,000 hits between January and September 2012.  This is evidence of a widespread interest in the events of 1962 and the value of the online archive.  If new, relevant material comes to light, it will continue to be added to the site.  In the meantime it stands as a resource for anyone who wants to know about the last outbreak of smallpox in Britain.

Fighting smallpox in the laboratory

A vivid account of the work of scientists in combating the smallpox outbreak in 1962 has been sent to the site by Edward Meyrick, who went on to be Principal Scientific Officer at the Public Health Laboratory Service, Colindale.

He describes how – 50 years ago – the small team, based at Cardiff Royal Infirmary, used the only open-fronted safety cabinet in Wales to deal with potentially lethal samples. He also recalls the primitive protection and safety measures available when he had to visit smallpox patients in isolation.

See Laboratory in the front line.

BBC report brings thousands to smallpox site

The BBC news website ran a report on the Smallpox1962 project on 12 June.  The new publicity led to a record number of visits on the Smallpox1962 site on that day – with more than 1,100 page hits.  That record was broken on 13 June with more than 1,200 page hits.  All this shows the high level of interest in a story which affected almost everyone alive in South Wales 50 years ago.