Safer, yet more scaredKorea’s first act on modern vaccination, an ordinance on smallpox, was promulgated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs on Oct. 7, 1895. The ordinance declared that every child from 7 months to one year old and adults who had not suffered from smallpox had to be vaccinated against the disease.
The renowned scholar Ji Seok-young learned how to inoculate people for smallpox at a Japanese hospital in Busan. He injected his young brother-in-law with the cowpox virus for the first time in 1879. Although variolation - the process of infecting people with smallpox in a controlled manner so as to induce immunity against the disease - was fairly well known among Koreans, most people did not believe that smallpox could be prevented.
Understandably, the “smallpox ghost” was one of the most fearful ghosts among evil spirits. The exorcism dispelling demons of smallpox was the principal source of income for female shamans, and the superstition that injecting people with a vaccine would annoy the smallpox ghost had been widely disseminated. If a doctor appeared in the village, mothers with babies on their backs fled to the mountain.
However, as cowpox proved effective, the number of people who volunteered to take the vaccine steadily increased and more people tried to learn about cowpox inoculations.
One month after the “vaccine rules” were adopted, rules about schools for vaccination providers were enacted to produce highly qualified vaccinators. Although the government failed to help every infant and child across the country receive the proper vaccine as scheduled, the risk of getting smallpox dropped dramatically.
In 1908, Yu Byeong-pil, a drillmaster at the Daehan Hospital, wrote a statement commemorating the extermination of smallpox in the Hwangseong Newspaper: “Nearly all people under the age of 30 were immune to smallpox as the use of cowpox was widely known in the country, three decades after Ji Seok-young introduced it to the general public. The population is bigger than ever and no one is scarred with smallpox.”
However, cowpox could not prevent all infectious diseases from spreading. The outbreak of cholera, typhoid, malaria and encephalitis killed many people. The number of cholera deaths was 13,570 in 1910; the number of encephalitis deaths was 761 in 1955; and 125 lives were lost due to a cholera epidemic in 1969.
Between the plague and the many other factors that contributed to death during that time, the distance between life and death was pretty small. The dispelling of the fear of death in our daily lives is mainly due to the improvement of living conditions and the development of medical science over the past generation.
People eventually have been able to design the future in a sustainable manner. However, the farther the distance between life and death became, the bigger the fear of death grew.
The new influenza A virus outbreak threw a wet blanket over several planned events and changed the way people interact. I believe our fear of the pandemic with a fatality rate less than 0.1 percent must be due to the fact that the world has become safer than ever.
The writer is a research professor of the Center for Hospital History and Culture at the Seoul National University Hospital.
By Jeon Woo-yong