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.

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.

‘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.

Life at Penrhys smallpox hospital – new audio

Mr Bowden at Penrhys Smallpox Hospital (Photo: ITV Wales)

The isolation hospital at Penrhys above the Rhondda valleys was at the centre of the 1962 smallpox outbreak in Wales. The caretaker was Donald Tudor Bowen, who lived on the site with his wife Sheila and daughter Dawn.

Fifty years after the outbreak, Sheila and Dawn spoke to David Williams about life before, during and after the smallpox outbreak.

Listen to their story.

£500 compensation for loss of property at isolation hospital

Documents in the official files reveal the battle which the caretakers of the Penrhys Isolation Hospital had to fight to obtain compensation for all their property which was destroyed after the smallpox outbreak in 1962.

Donald Tudor Bowden, caretaker at Penrhys Isolation Hospital in 1962 (Photo: ITV Wales)

Mr and Mrs Bowden left everything behind – clothes, cutlery and children’s clothes. Their claim was eventually accepted and they were paid £500 in compensation.

See the original documents from the files in the National Archive.

Three dead in new smallpox ‘mystery’ outbreak – 9 April 1962

Fifty years ago today, a third patient at Glanrhyd Hospital near Bridgend died of smallpox. The new outbreak in the mental hospital had the authorities worried – they did not know how the disease had got into Glanrhyd. The South Wales Echo headline that day read ‘Big search for smallpox carrier’. Continue reading

‘All clear near’ in smallpox outbreak – South Wales Echo: 26 March 1962

Fifty years ago today, hopes were high that the smallpox outbreak in Wales – which had killed six people and infected many more – was at an end.  With no new cases reported for 17 days, the South Wales Echo predicted that the all-clear was near.

The paper also reported the release from quarantine of 20 children who had been isolated in Ward 3 at East Glamorgan Hospital for three weeks.  Among them were Wayne Roberts from Llanharry, Peter Morgan from Treforest and William Scott from Efail Isaf.  The paper carried a photograph of one of the nurses released with the children – Gillian Bowen SRN.