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.