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1946::Post-War Smallpox Resurgence in the Pacific Northwest

Updated: Jun 30

Fifteen weeks to control a deadly smallpox outbreak.


1946::Smallpox Arrives on the Pacific Coast Aboard the USS Hermitage

"1946::Smallpox Arrives on the Pacific Coast Aboard the USS Hermitage" Photo Clip: Public Domain


On February 5, 1946, two US Navy ships, the USS Hermitage and Haskell, arrived in Seattle, Washington. They had sailed across the Pacific from Japan with thousands of veteran troops aboard, all anxious to return home from the war. Little did they know their return would bring with it a potential disaster. Port Authorities held both ships in quarantine when they learned that three soldiers, two with typhus and one with smallpox, may have unknowingly spread their deadly diseases to others on board. Allowing them to disembark meant a possible outbreak of epidemic proportions. The risk was just too high. Upon further inspection, however, it was learned that the typhus outbreak was just a scare. And although the single case of smallpox on board the USS Hermitage was genuine, it was possibly contained, thanks to the captain's quick thinking and heroic decision. He had sailed hundreds of miles off course to Pearl Harbour, where they were given enough supplies to vaccinate the ship's 6,800 passengers and crewmen before continuing to Seattle. This quick decision to vaccinate all on board satisfied the Port Authorities. After 20 hours and the removal of the infected soldier by stretcher, the veterans were discharged and allowed to disembark. It was a decision they would soon regret.


1946::The Smallpox Outbreak Begins

"1946::The Smallpox Outbreak Begins" Clip: The Seattle Star Seattle, Washington


The infected soldier was taken to the military hospital at Fort Lawton, where all patients were vaccinated ahead of his arrival. Days later, a female patient who had unknowingly come in contact with the infected soldier was innocently transferred to a civilian hospital for additional care. Within weeks, the female patient died of smallpox, and the civilian hospital was closed and quarantined due to the massive outbreak that had spread to patients and staff.


1946::Seattlers Lines Up to be Vaccinated

"1946::Seattlers Line Up to be Vaccinated"

Clip: Spokane Chronicle (1946)

Spokane, Washington


By the end of March, the outbreak had reached epidemic proportions, and a State of Emergency was declared. Thousands lined up at Seattle's health clinics to be vaccinated, but the supply was quickly exhausted, and hundreds were turned away. As the state of Washington struggled to curb the outbreak, an emergency supply of vaccines was requested from the East Coast.


1946::State of Emergency Declared

"1946::State of Emergency Declared"

Clip: The Bellingham Herald (1946) Bellingham, Washington


Portland, Oregon, which had also been sending its supplies to Seattle in its cry for help, soon realized that it was time to begin its own vaccination process when smallpox cases began appearing in San Francisco and neighbouring cities. The State of Emergency was suddenly expanded to include the entire length of the Pacific Coast between Mexico and Alaska, heightening the urgency of the vaccination process.


1946::Victorians Line Up at Pandora Street Health Centre to Get Vaccinated

"1946::Victorians Line Up at Pandora Avenue Health Centre to Get Vaccinated"

Photo Clip: Times Colonist (1946) Victoria, British Columbia


As the smallpox outbreak escalated, Victoria's Health Officer urged Vancouver Islanders to get vaccinated, especially since the State of Washington did not take measures to quarantine Seattle while trying to contain the epidemic. Incoming and outgoing passenger ferries and commercial shipments between international ports had carried on with business, putting citizens at risk of being infected with the highly contagious disease. However, British Columbia's health authorities responded immediately to the coastal State of Emergency by issuing a quarantine order on all vessels arriving in the province by air and sea. They also closed the British Columbia-Washington border to the unvaccinated, requiring proof of vaccination from any individual entering the province. And although they had ordered 250,000 vaccines, the lineup on Pandora Avenue was greater than the available supply on this particular day. Hundreds were turned away.


1946::Fifteen Weeks Later

"1946::Fifteen Weeks Later"

Photo Clip: Times Colonist (1946)Victoria, British Columbia


After fifteen weeks of madness, the smallpox epidemic of 1946 came to an end in June. Nearly 400,000 British Columbians had rushed to protect themselves with a shield of vaccination, warding off any chance of viral propagation in the province. Almost the same number was vaccinated in the State of Washington. Reflecting on the outbreak, Vancouver's Medical Health Officer blamed the outbreak on the rapid transfer of viral infection between countries. The infected soldier, who had sailed from Japan, where both smallpox and typhus were beginning to take hold of the Western Pacific Coast, had spread the deadly disease throughout Seattle before his death. As a result, Washington had been particularly hard hit with a fatal form of the disease. The final picture showed 68 cases and 20 deaths, with 41 showing scars resulting from moderate or severe attacks.


1946::Vaccination Opposers

"1946::Vaccination Opposers"

Clip: Victoria Daily Times (1946)

Victoria, British Columbia


As thousands of British Columbians rushed to protect themselves, the Anti-Vivisectionists tried to convince the masses that vaccination was no longer necessary in their modern-day society. The disease had been all but eradicated in Britain since the 1930s, and the old-fashioned way of vaccinating against smallpox risked a higher percentage of vaccine injuries than protection. Over the next several years, the smallpox vaccination program for infants in Britain came under review and was eventually discontinued in 1971 after more than a hundred years of being compulsory. In 1980, the World Health Organization announced the eradication of smallpox from the earth after thousands of years of known existence, which is considered one of their biggest achievements in international public health.


The anti-vivisectionist cause has existed for centuries, even if under different names. It was officially established in Victoria not long after the Great War in response to the experimental and torturous cruelty imposed on animals and humans in the name of science, which continued throughout the Second World War by warring countries, including, among others, the United States, Soviet Russia, the Imperial Japanese Army (Unit 731) and Nazi Germany. The anti-vivisectionists brought to light many stories that would have otherwise been buried and forgotten.


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