December 3, 2020

Balmis, the Spanish hero of the first world vaccination campaign

It was military, but it did not carry weapons. He was born in 1753 in Alicante, but would soon go around the world. The second great circumnavigation of a Spanish. As important as the first, that of Magellan and Elcano. But this time it was not intended to open trade routes. Nor to discover territories. Nor to conquer them. Her mission was more eccentric. By then and today: it was nothing less than philanthropic. Their goal, to eradicate smallpox. Today it no longer exists. The last case occurred in Africa, in 1977. It has not reappeared. Throughout history, the disease has cost 300 million people their lives. It has been, along with measles and bubonic plague, one of the deadliest infections in history.

In the 18th century it was still a scourge. Until Edward Jenner arrived. Your name will tell you little. Few are likely to know him, but he is a hero. One of the greats. More than Nelson or Captain James Cook. The word “vaccine” is due to him. And also the idea of ​​vaccinating. He found that women in contact with cows did not contract this disease or only had mild symptoms. He studied the case. He reflected silently. He played it. Took a pus test. He took it from an affected woman and inoculated it in a child. He fell slightly ill, but never seriously. He recovered soon and had no sequelae. Exit. James Philips, 8 years old, had become the first child to be vaccinated in history. With him began a new stage of medicine on a global level.

The news spread. He also came to Spain. And there it was. Francisco Javier Balmis. Surgeon, Surgeon’s son, from a family of surgeons. Its roots were in France, but its seat was now in Spain. At the age of seventeen he began medical studies at the Royal Military Hospital of Alicante. A brilliant career. Accompanied by the best doctors. He obtained the title of surgeon in 1778 at the University of Alicante. He was a determined man, with a will, determined to achieve his purposes. Of those who do not give in to laziness or allow themselves to be lazy. A year after finishing, he joined the army. To his determination he now adds military discipline. In 1781 he was appointed chief surgeon. A rapid rise that accounts for your talent. Then he travels to Havana and Mexico. It is related for the first time to the American latitudes. Then the Spanish Crown had two coasts in the Atlantic: that of Spain and that of America. During his stay he becomes familiar with the ills of Venus. The punishment of the armies. Venereal diseases. He writes some treatises and returns to his country.

On his return is when his feat and the journey of departure actually begins. He is appointed doctor of Carlos IV and it is he who convinces him of the need to vaccinate against smallpox, to organize the first world vaccination campaign. Territories didn’t matter. Nor to whom they belonged. Health was above flags and borders. An idea. And an example. And of a Spanish military man. The monarch paid attention. His daughter, Infanta María Teresa, had died from this scourge. The loss made him sympathetic and he granted permission.

The expedition left La Coruña, but the difficulty was not the sea, nor the storms. There was a question that no one had answered. How to transport a vaccine to America? Science was not that advanced in the Age of Enlightenment. There were thinkers, there were scientists, but there was no technology. They only had the modernity that that era brought. And it wasn’t enough. You had to improvise. And improvisation is one of the Spanish talent, along with envy, of course. Balmis had an idea. Make men carriers of the vaccine. They would choose twenty-two children. All foundlings. Seven were under three years old. The plan was simple. None of the boys had to have passed smallpox. They would have them separated (now we would say confined) in different rooms of the ship. The disease would be inoculated first to one and then to another. In this way they would come to America with the infected and from them they could extract the vaccine.

In 1803, on board “María Pita”, accompanied by Dr. José Salvany, who would die during the expedition after having vaccinated more than 22,000 people, and Isabel Zendal, who is considered the first nurse in history, Balmis leaves for the New Continent. During the journey he loses one of the children who goes with them. But they reach port. They begin the mission. From that moment on, they inject the vaccine into one and the other. They make a human chain. They always carry someone with them to help them get to a point further away. On one occasion, they bought some women who sold as slaves in order to continue. They accept the proposal they receive from that man and finally they know the Pacific coast. But it’s not enough. There is still half the world. They jump to the Philippines. They ask permission to go to China, to Macao, to Canton. You get it. They return to Spain in 1806. They have endured governor reluctance, adverse weather, villager reluctance, and suspicion of the powerful, and, of course, the inherent setbacks of any trip. Gone are, of course, those first twenty-two children. Their names are known. It is known that they were safe, but not what happened to them. His adventure, like that of the doctors, was a feat. Humboldt recognized him. The world, too. In our country it was forgotten. Until now. When the Defense Ministry called its deployment in the fight against the coronavirus “Operation Balmis”.

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