Smallpox broke out in southeast Arizona almost exactly 100 years ago last week (co-incident with the Statehood activities). The first cases were in Tucson and Douglas with a few dozen cases and several deaths… and there were a few additional cases in Nogales and Globe. Of course, all the cases were among folks that hadn’t been vaccinated. The public health interventions of the time were much like what we would do today- case contact follow up with targeted vaccinations of folks that had contact with cases.
For example, Dr. Chenoweth (Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Health) implemented an aggressive targeted vaccination effort following the Nogales case. From the 1912 records, we know that Dr. Chenoweth immediately began a “house-to-house vaccination campaign, vaccinating every person within a radius of six or seven miles of the case under quarantine, except one person who secreted herself and escaped vaccination, but developed smallpox instead.” These two cases were the only ones reported from Santa Cruz County.
As the outbreak progressed in the following months, the State Board of Health weighed in on the public health response that had been undertaken in the various counties. The 1912 State Board of Health minutes stated that: “In our opinion this (contact and ring vaccination campaigns) is not sufficient, as there is no one to keep check on the patient or guardian to see that vaccination is done. Our public health law should be amended to read: In addition to the above stated section, no principal, teacher or superintendent shall permit any person to attend school, unless they have been vaccinated. A large per cent of the children of Arizona have not been vaccinated and will not as long as they are allowed to attend school without first having been vaccinated.
So, the February 1912 Smallpox outbreak in SE AZ was that spark that triggered the debate about whether and how to require vaccination as a prerequisite for attending school. You can check out our pre-school and school resource page to find out more about today’s school vaccination requirements.
I had a moment of panic when I read the title “Arizona smallpox outbreak”! Thankfully it wasn’t breaking news…
I think I’ve taking more Vaccine in the past couple of years, more than I’ve taking in my life time!
History… How should we know it if we do not know. Thanks for sharing. But nowadays we have Vaccine 🙂
My grandfather worked for the Copper Queen Smelting between 1916 and 1921. During that time he and his two infant sons contracted smallpox. The children died. My grandfather survived but was horribly scarred and disfigured by the disease. Are there any records or documentation of an outbreak in Douglas at the time?
Thank you for any help or information you can provide.
Hello Ms. Salas,
Thank you for contacting the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and inquiring about a smallpox outbreak that occurred in Douglas, AZ sometime between 1916 – 1921. We are very sorry to hear your grandfather and his two infant sons were affected by this terrible disease. As you know, smallpox is an acute viral illness caused by variola, one of the orthopox viruses. Fortunately, no cases of smallpox have been observed in the world since 1978 and the World Health Organization declared the world free of smallpox in 1980. While ADHS was unable to find any existing documentation of this outbreak in our records, we were able to find an article online from the Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service of the United States (fiscal year 1917) that references a smallpox outbreak in Douglas that occurred between May 21 and June 25, 1917. The article reports a total of 46 cases and 10 deaths associated with the outbreak. Should we come across any additional documentation, we will be sure to send it your way. We hope that you find this information helpful!
Vaccines work. They wiped out smallpox globally, and polio is on its way out as well. Rubella has been eliminated in the Americas, too. Measles was stopped dead in its tracks once in this country. Let’s make it happen again.