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January 29, 2022
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Discussion Boards on Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Weapons

The War Against Smallpox David W. Tschanz, MSPH, PhD

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Franco-Prussian War

France and Prussia declared war on each other in late July 1870. On September 2nd, Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussians at Sedan. However fighting continued elsewhere as French republicans proclaimed a new government in Paris. The French capital was besieged on September 19th, falling to the Prussians on January 28, 1871.

At the war's start, vaccination was still entirely voluntary in France and northern Germany, but mandatory for infants in southern German states. With war the movement of peoples began and smallpox followed in its wake.

The German army, unlike the civilian population required vaccination of all troops and revaccination every seven years. Of the 800,000 man army a mere 8,643 caught smallpox and only 459 (5.4%) died. In France's one million man army, of whom 700,000 were taken prisoner, 125,000 men were infected and 23,470 (18.7%) died (Hopkins 1983, 90). Thus the French army lost nearly as many men to smallpox alone as the German army lost to all causes in the entire war. The French army was militarily unprepared for war, but smallpox could only have made matters worse. In one 1158 man Gardes mobiles unit, for example, over half the men developed smallpox during the war.

The large number of French prisoners were a reservoir of smallpox. When 373,000 of them were moved to Germany for incarceration, they spread smallpox throughout Europe. Starting in fall of 1870 the disease spread rapidly to the German population, probably as a result of petty trade in personal effects, including the clothes of dead Frenchman. Whereas Prussia had recorded 4200 deaths from smallpox in 1870, 59,839 and 65,109 were recorded in 1871 and 1872. Throughout all of Germany at least 162,000 died from the disease. Only a small number of deaths in the southern states where vaccination was mandatory. The French, with no compulsory vaccination suffered as severely as Prussia.

The Franco-Prussian war triggered a five year smallpox epidemic throughout Europe that claimed 500,000 lives. The pandemic discriminated sharply between civilian populations of nations with compulsory vaccination laws for civilians such as England, Scotland, Sweden and Bavaria and states without such laws as Prussia, Austria and Belgium. The latter had smallpox mortality rates about three times higher than the former, and young children comprised most of the death in states where vaccination was not required. In addition the value of revaccination was illustrated by the Prussian army's epidemiologic experience during the war.

Although this wave of epidemics was not anywhere near as severe as those Europe had suffered in the Eighteenth Century, it was by far the worst catastrophe of the Nineteenth. It shocked Europeans out of their complacency about controlling smallpox and provided a costly lesson in public health policy.

Direct legal actions were taken in England and Germany to strengthen existing vaccination laws, but nothing was done in either France or Austria. These two countries continued to suffer a higher rate of smallpox mortality than any other European country except Russia.

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Discussion Boards on Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Weapons

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