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How New York thwarted the 1947 smallpox outbreak by vaccinating 6M people

Jerry Oppenheimer is a New York Times bestselling author whose 13 books have included biographies of such American icons as the Clintons and the Kennedys.

From president-elect Joe Biden to angry and frustrated democratic governors across the country, there’s been much whining and bickering over the slowness of the Covid-19 vaccine distribution – and, not surprisingly, blame is on the outgoing Trump administration.

‘As I long feared and warned,’ declared Biden. ‘The effort to distribute and administer the vaccine is not progressing as it should…it would take years, not months, to vaccinate the American people.’ 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer contends, ‘The feds are slow-walking the process…the bottleneck appears to be the [Trump] White House.’ While New York’s Andrew Cuomo claims, ‘The people of this country don’t trust the federal government with this vaccine process.’

But the complaining politicians have only to look back to 1947 – when highly contagious and monstrously fatal smallpox quietly slipped into New York City from Mexico – to see how millions of Big Apple citizens were immunized, virtually overnight, resulting in just two deaths, and with none of the politicization and panic that exists today with the Covid vaccine.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed that he will not take the COVID-19 vaccine until all people in his age group have access to the jab as the state is hit with the second wave and hospitals are inundated with patients 

In 1947, millions of New Yorkers were immunized virtually overnight when the highly contagious and fatal smallpox outbreak occurred. Thousands of New Yorkers are seen lining up for smallpox vaccines in against smallpox in 1947

In 1947, millions of New Yorkers were immunized virtually overnight when the highly contagious and fatal smallpox outbreak occurred. Thousands of New Yorkers are seen lining up for smallpox vaccines in against smallpox in 1947

‘What happened in New York City was successful because of federal, state and local communication, voluntary vaccinations and a public information blitz – and that’s what’s needed in any pandemic,’ according to Judith Leavitt, professor emerita of history of medicine, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health.

What could have become a killer smallpox epidemic in New York City, claiming the lives of untold thousands, began on February 24, 1947, when a 47-year-old American businessman by the name of Eugene Le Bar and his wife were on their way to their home in Maine and boarded a New York-bound bus in Mexico City. 

During the exhausting five-day trip he became ill – a headache, back pain, sore throat and two days into the trip, a severe rash. To help, he started popping large amounts of aspirin, but to no avail.

Le Bar felt even worse when the bus arrived at the midtown Manhattan terminal on February 30. Still, the couple decided to spend a few days in the city – checking into a hotel, sightseeing, shopping and mingling with huge crowds of New Yorkers on the city’s teeming sidewalks and in its bustling stores. 

These New Yorkers were innocent of the fact that the man was carrying a deadly, highly contagious disease, with no cure or treatment – a disease that would soon have the nation’s most populated city in near panic.

A vaccine can prevent smallpox, but its side effects are too high to justify routine vaccination for people at low risk, according to medical experts.

By March 5, Le Bar had become so ill that he was rushed from his hotel to Bellevue Hospital. With his temperature high and his rash spreading, physicians were not only stymied, but were extremely concerned. 

Most had never seen a case of smallpox, and the city had not experienced smallpox in decades. Three days later, the doctors at Bellevue ordered Le Bar transferred to Willard Parker Hospital, the city’s communicable disease hospital.

According to a November 1947 report in the American Journal of Public Health by Dr. Israel Weinstein, New York City’s Commissioner of Health through the crises, doctors at Willard Parker initially considered four possibilities for Le bar’s deteriorating condition.

Smallpox was mainly rejected because Le Bar had a ‘well developed vaccination scar.’ An initial biopsy of his skin also showed no indication of smallpox, but later ‘other sections of the same biopsy’ disclosed characteristic bodies of smallpox.

Five days after Le Bar was admitted to Willard Parker, on March 10, he died. An autopsy showed multiple hemorrhages, attributable to smallpox.

While Le Bar was at Willard Parker, two other patients had been admitted – 27-year-old Ismael Acosta, with mumps, and a 22-month-old girl suffering from croup, neither had ever been vaccinated. 

George Long, vaccinates little Patrick Hogan, while other children in the class line up awaiting their turn at the needle at the St. Joan of Arc, parochial school in Jackson Heights, Queens

George Long, vaccinates little Patrick Hogan, while other children in the class line up awaiting their turn at the needle at the St. Joan of Arc, parochial school in Jackson Heights, Queens

The smallpox outbreak began on February 24, 1947, with a 47-year-old American businessman by the name of Eugene Le Bar traveled from Mexico City to his home in Maine, stopping in New York

The smallpox outbreak began on February 24, 1947, with a 47-year-old American businessman by the name of Eugene Le Bar traveled from Mexico City to his home in Maine, stopping in New York

New Yorkers are seen lining up for their free smallpox vaccinations after 12 cases were reported in the state in April 1947

New Yorkers are seen lining up for their free smallpox vaccinations after 12 cases were reported in the state in April 1947

They soon recovered and were released, but eleven days after Le Bar died, the girl, who had developed a rash, was readmitted to Willard Parker, with what was believed to be chickenpox. The next day Acosta, who was employed at Bellevue Hospital, also developed a rash, also thought to be chickenpox.

But further lab tests showed ‘numerous lesions characteristic of smallpox infection.’

For killer smallpox to spread, all it takes is a touch, a cough, or a sneeze. A horrific rash can then cover the entire body. 

The World Health Organization states that in the 20th century alone, smallpox had claimed 300 million people. Finally, in 1980, it was declared eradicated by the WHO.

All employees and patients at Willard Parker were vaccinated, and the case involving Eugene Le Bar, who had traveled to New York from Mexico, was reexamined and determined that he had died from smallpox, and was the source of smallpox infection of Acosta and the child. 

All of the guests who had been in the hotel where the Le Bars had stayed were traced and vaccinated.

But more smallpox cases began showing up: Ismael Acosta’s 26-year-old wife; three men, ranging in age from 43 to 60, who had been patients at Bellevue when Acosta was there; a four-year-old boy who had been at Willard Parker on the day Le Bar died. 

The boy would be the source of three other smallpox cases – a 62-year-old nun, a five-year-old boy, and a two-year-old girl. By then, the smallpox outbreak consisted of 12 cases – nine originating in New York City, three in the town of Millbrook, New York. Of the nine in the city, two died – Le Bar and Mrs. Acosta.

Before 1947, the last major outbreak of smallpox in New York City had occurred in 1875, claiming the lives of some 2,000 residents.

On April 4, 1947, with the diagnosis of small pox in the Acosta case, the U.S. Public Health Service was notified and those on the bus with the Le Bars and others along the route were traced to determine if they had been infected. No cases were found. Mrs. Le Bar was located in Maine, but she had long before been vaccinated and was in good health.

April 4 also happened to be Good Friday. Two days later the city’s annual Easter Parade was scheduled. If someone with smallpox were to be in the crowd, the outcome could be a disastrous.

At that point, a plan was drafted by New York City’s health department, to vaccinate all New Yorkers, and the department’s Bureau of Laboratories was placed on an emergency work schedule.

Mayor O'Dwyer (left) was vaccinatedPresident Harry me to Newad news reports stated he had also rolled up his sleeve

Mayor O’Dwyer (left) is pictured meeting President Harry S. Truman (right). During the outbreak, Truman came to New York and news reports stated he had also rolled up his sleeve

As of Sunday, January 3, there were over one million total cases in the state of New York

As of Sunday, January 3, there were over one million total cases in the state of New York 

Immediately, New York media – newspapers, radio and TV– issued alerts urging everyone to be vaccinated without delay, with all health department offices and all the city hospitals kept open night and day, seven days a week to deal with the emergency.

At the urgent request of New York’s Irish-American mayor, William O’Dwyer, a one-term democrat, the nation’s vaccine manufacturers went on a 24-hour schedule packaging their bulk vaccine, sending all supplies to the Big Apple. 

Some 650,000 doses of vaccine were immediately available, and another several hundred thousand units of vaccine was quickly gathered around the country and shipped to New York by the U.S. military.

With news cameras present, Mayor O’Dwyer was vaccinated by Dr. Weinstein. On April 21, President Harry S. Truman came to New York, and news reports stated he had also rolled up his sleeve.

Drug store pharmacists participated, distributing vaccine to private doctors, and vaccination stations were set up at all police precincts, Health Department buildings, and city hospitals and clinics were on duty, with the vaccine free of charge to all who lined up. 

Local vaccination centers were established by community organizations. Factories, business offices, and union headquarters, also set up vaccine centers.

But there were vaccine shortages, and there was a sense of panic among New Yorkers who still had not gotten their shots. 

At some vaccine stations, according to a story in The New York Times, ‘the crowds did not take kindly to the news that the doctors had run out of vaccine and the police had a little difficulty dispersing a crowd of several hundred’ outside a vaccine station. 

In one instance, a young woman posing as a nurse vaccinated 500 people with water to impress her boyfriend. She was sent to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

But, in a period of less than a month, more than 6,350,000 New Yorkers were vaccinated, more than five million of them within the two-week period following the appeal for universal vaccination made by the mayor.

According to Dr. Weinstein, the city’s health commissioner during the 1947 smallpox cases, ‘Never before had so many people in one city been vaccinated in such a short time and on such short notice.’

Graphs show that New York is in the midst of a second wave of COVID-19, after managed to curb infection and death rates during the summer and fall of 2020

Graphs show that New York is in the midst of a second wave of COVID-19, after managed to curb infection and death rates during the summer and fall of 2020 

A COVID-19 patient is wheeled into a New York City hospital on New Year's Day

A COVID-19 patient is wheeled into a New York City hospital on New Year’s Day 

According to a Bloomberg report based on data up to January 2, 4.2 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine has been given in the U.S. since vaccinations began on December 14.

In his report, Weinstein said that what happened in New York could have been a ‘major catastrophe.’ All of the New York cases were of the ‘virulent type’ and ‘it is little short of remarkable that there were only 12 cases in the entire outbreak,’ he stated.

In the aftermath of the mass vaccination campaign in New York almost 75years ago, the city’s Health Department received innumerable phone calls reporting cases of smallpox that turned out to be chickenpox, and others called complaining of falling ill and blaming the emergency vaccine they had received, but there were no fatalities.

The smallpox epidemic that struck New York also caught the fancy of Hollywood.

Based on a 1948 article in Cosmopolitan magazine, entitled ‘Smallpox, the Killer That Stalks New York,’ the film, ‘The Killer That Stalked New York,’ was shot on location and in a semi-documentary style, and shown in movie theaters in 1950.

But the producers changed the story line, blaming the smallpox outbreak that caused a panic in the city on a woman, played by the actress Evelyn Keyes, who had arrived in New York from Cuba with $50,000 worth of smuggled diamonds, feeling ill, and not knowing she had smallpox, which soon spread. 


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