[FOUNTAIN]A New Plague in Our Midst

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[FOUNTAIN]A New Plague in Our Midst

Edward Jenner was an English doctor whose experiment 200 years ago with the cowpox virus led to the discovery of vaccination against smallpox. He got the idea, records say, when he realized that milkmaids were nearly immune from the disease. Another famous story, although not true, says he began his clinical trial by inoculating his own son.

The first person Jenner inoculated, on May 1, 1796, was an 8-year old boy named James Philipps. No details are known about the boy, but he was not Jenner's son. The story may have had its origin in the fact that Jenner did inoculate his son, Edward, in an earlier experiment using a different technique: scratching the skin of a healthy person with the pus extracted from a smallpox pustule.

The spread of the fictional story in Korea may have been helped by a school textbook during the colonial period. The ethics textbook, introduced in 1910, contained the unfounded passage about Jenner trying the cowpox virus for the first time on his son. A later document drawn up in Japan would explain that the authorities back then probably thought the story was a morally edifying tale.

Smallpox was a scourge that threatened the country for a long time and so harshly that it was almost treated like an evil god, even nicknamed mama, an ancient term of address for royalty. The disease would be rapidly eradicated after a doctor named Ji Seok-young brought in vaccine from Japan in 1879.

Cholera first plagued the country in 1821 and has been around since then with periodic outbreaks. In 1858, a reported 500,000 people, estimated to be 5 percent of the country's population, lost their lives from the epidemic.

The origin of cholera is traced back to the region of the Ganges River. Soon after the first outbreak occurred in 1817, the disease rapidly spread all over the world. Just in a one-week period, 5,000 British soldiers stationed near Calcutta were reported to have succumbed to the disease.

The cholera bacterium replicates itself in human intestines and releases toxins, triggering diarrhea and vomiting. Violent spasms begin in the legs, a symptom that led the people of the Choson Dynasty to think that a rat bite caused the disease. Some believed that a picture of a cat posted at the door would keep the disease away.

The current outbreak of cholera is reported to have spread because of lack of adequate response despite a warning last month by the National Institute of Health.

It is outrageous that a plague like this is going around the country when we already have enough problems to worry about.

The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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