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)

‘All clear’ – end of smallpox outbreak – 21 May 1962

Fifty years ago today, the South Wales Echo carried the front page news that the third and final phase of the Welsh smallpox outbreak was over.

Six weeks after the unexplained infection of patients at Glanrhyd Hospital in Bridgend, the ‘all clear’ was given.

It had been four months since the start of the crisis, when a traveller from Pakistan arrived in Cardiff and was diagnosed with the disease. Shuka Mia survived, but 19 people died – six in the Llantrisant and Rhondda areas and 13 in Bridgend.

During that period, 900,000 people in south Wales were vaccinated and a huge operation was mounted to trace contacts and contain the outbreak.

This site has tracked the story day by day, 50 years later. Over the past four months, it has registered more than 11,000 page hits and more than 50 people have contacted us with their personal recollections. You can read their stories and listen to audio recordings of some of them.

Smallpox1962 will continue as an online archive of an event which touched the lives of everyone in south Wales 50 years ago.

A victim of vaccination – audio

Almost a million people in south Wales were vaccinated during the smallpox outbreak 50 years ago.

Photo: Smallpox 1962

Davyna Anne Williams was 17 at the time of the outbreak in 1962, but it had a long-lasting and very significant effect on her family.

Her father, Ben Davies, was Headmaster at Ferndale Secondary Modern School For Boys and one of the very first people to be vaccinated in the Rhondda Valley. She believes it was this early inoculation that led to his death.

You can hear her story here.

Smallpox scare in Abercynon caused by vaccination – 50 years ago

Jean Herbert from Carmarthen was at the centre of a smallpox scare in Abercynon in 1962 when she developed modified smallpox after vaccination at the age of 10.  She continued to suffer the after-effects for 20 years. She said she became something of a curiosity and was visited  by student doctors.  But fears about the disease caused Abercynon to become ‘a ghost town’.

Read her full account in What do you remember?

Memories of deaths through vaccination

Barbara Downing  from Merthyr Tydfil contacted Smallpox1962 about the serious effects of  vaccination:

‘My cousin and her husband – a Baptist minister in Gendros, Swansea – were looking forward to the birth of their baby.  She had vaccination, unaware that it was detrimental to have it during pregnancy.  Sadly they lost their baby and she nearly lost her life too.  It was a dreadful time for them, as you can imagine.   One of my colleagues’ very elderly mother-in-law had the vaccination and she died as a result of it.’

Read her full recollections under ‘What do you remember?’

Headline 17 January 1962 – ‘Clinics besieged’

Fifty years ago today, Cardiff was gripped by panic as news of smallpox in the city spread.

Long queues formed as people demanded vaccination.

The headline in the South Wales Echo read:

‘Clinics besieged’

There were photos of queues for vaccination at Gabalfa and the paper reported:

‘Police disperse crowds at Llanrumney after supplies ran out’.

The 1962 Smallpox outbreaks in England & Wales

Photo: ITV Wales

THIS WEBSITE tells the story of the outbreaks of Smallpox in Britain in 1962, with particular emphasis on the impact of the disease in Wales, where 19 people died and 900,000 were vaccinated.

The outbreak began in January 1962. To mark the 50th anniversary content was added from January to May 2012.

The site is the work of James Stewart, who made a documentary about the outbreak for ITV in 2002.  While he was teaching at the University of Glamorgan, a small group of students joined the project to record the memories of people affected by the outbreak in 1962.

CLICK on the tabs in the menu to follow the story in different locations.

If you have memories (or pictures) from the 1962 outbreaks, please get in touch by adding a comment. Your contributions will be added to the site (see below –

See people’s comments and add your own below (or on other pages).  See also ‘What do you remember?’

Contact the project by e-mail: info@smallpox1962.org.uk

>> STORYLINE – THE OUTBREAK IN WALES