Using a misquote, without context, to try and make a point about modern vaccines

Using a misquote, without context, to try and make a point about modern vaccines

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This appears in an NIH publication. This quote is accurate but omits critical context  – the inoculation he refers to was not a vaccine and was not great – 2% who got it, died.

This item, is shared on social media “as is” to campaign for vaccinations, even though it is not relevant to our modern situation.

Inoculation is not a vaccine in the modern sense but:

“Inoculation used a string which had been drawn through the pustule of a smallpox victim. The string was dried out and saved. For inoculation, an incision was made and the string was drawn through it to infect the recipient with attenuated smallpox. The recipient would more often get a milder form of smallpox with a lower risk of death. During that period the recipient would be contagious to others.”

2% (or 1 out of every 50) of those inoculated in this way, died, versus 15% who contracted smallpox during smallpox outbreaks.

“Unfortunately, Franklin’s choice was not so simple. Franklin’s son could die if either choice was made. If there was no risk of smallpox then “do nothing” made sense. Inoculation became a relevant option when smallpox arrived in town. The key to the decision was the probability that Franklin’s son would become infected in the natural way. If this risk was high enough, then at some point inoculation with its 2% mortality would be justified

Compare this to today’s Covid-19 outbreak. If below age 50, the risk of death due to Covid-19 is very small. Above age 50, the risk begins to rise until it is about 2% above age 60, and over 10% for those even older.

The risk of death from a modern Covid vaccine is likely on the order of 1 in 1 million, or less, not 1 in 50 of the 1736 “inoculation”

According to the CDC, the first “treatise” on smallpox inoculation was not published until 1801. The modern concept of a smallpox vaccine did not occur until about 100 years later.

The quote above is accurate but highly misleading. The way it was used on social media was to imply something about anti-vaxxers and that Ben Franklin learned long ago that vaccines were the better way. This message works as propaganda because the viewer incorrectly thinks that Franklin was referring to a modern day vaccine.

But he was not – as noted, his choice was between a 1 in 50 risk of death or about a 1 in 6 risk of death. Neither seemed appealing in 1736. Furthermore, the state of medical care did not have modern antibiotics to deal with complications of making an incision in the skin using likely non-sterile tools.

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