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Borderlands: Smallpox Epidemic Showed Need for Hospitals 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Smallpox Epidemic Showed Need for Hospitals

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By Ashley Kerr 

Quarantine small pox signA sign hangs on your door forbidding entry to all. Your house has to be fumigated. No one can go to work or school. Groceries are left at the door. You have to go to the Pest House on the outskirts of town. You have smallpox.

Smallpox was a highly contagious viral disease characterized by a fever up to 106 degrees and distinctive rash. Just touch or respiration spread the disease. The incubation period for smallpox lasted from ten to fourteen days.

For the first two days, the symptoms included high fever, chills, head and backaches, muscular pains, and a developing rash. On the third day, the rash turned into what looked like little pimples, covering the entire body. One to two days later the pimple-like bumps filled with pus and high fever returned. Infection of the heart, lungs or brain could cause death.

On the eighth or ninth day, most of the lesions had ruptured and passed. By this time, healing slowed and could last for two more weeks. Victims who did not die from smallpox had permanent deep-pitted scarring, and many were permanently blinded.

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Smallpox, an extremely dangerous disease that surfaced as early as the 15th century, first appeared in China. During the 18th century, the infection was so widespread that almost everyone had smallpox during his or her lifetime. One third of the world's infected population died from smallpox while the two thirds that survived were permanently scarred and many blinded for life.

By the 19th century, the epidemic reached Texas, appearing in El Paso in the latter part of the century. The first case of smallpox occurred in El Paso in 1882. No real hospitals existed in El Paso at this time. Individuals infected with smallpox had to go to the Pest House or City Eruptive Hospital at Fort Bliss, located at Hart's Mill, now the location of La Hacienda Restaurant. The hovel was just that: a small three-room building with no windows, just a door frame and a dirt floor. Infected victims stayed here until the virus was gone or they died.


Image caption: A pest house located at the ASARCO smelter, used as a hospital for patients with contagious diseases. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society

On February 11, 1882, the El Paso Lone Star newspaper reported, "Four of the five smallpox patients who were sent to the miserable hovel at old Fort Bliss have died. The one who did not die, after he had been taken there, got up and walked back to town. It is nothing less than murder to send people to such a place."

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As more people became infected, the Pest House ran out of room. The city opened detention centers for victims, to prevent spreading the disease. The outbreak of smallpox was one of the many widespread epidemics such as cholera and tuberculosis that created a demand for El Paso to build hospitals.

In 1884, a new Pest House was built, but in 1893, a spark from the chimney burned it down. Victims of communicable diseases were once again isolated at Fort Bliss in the long barracks. A contagious disease hospital became part of El Paso's medical scene through World War II.

Historian Leon Metz wrote that by November 1, 1898, El Pasoans were ordered to get vaccinated, and most complied except for prostitutes, who believed that the serum would make them frigid. By the end of that month, the police department enforced the order and the majority complied within a few weeks.

As a young girl in El Paso, Alexine Bartz caught smallpox. In an article in a 1976 issue of Password, the journal of the El Paso Historical Society, Bartz wrote of her traumatic experience with the disease and the Pest House.

First feeling ill on December 7, 1914, as she walked home from school, the young girl ran a high fever and began vomiting by that evening. Her mother first thought Alexine had chicken pox since her brother and sister had it the previous year. But the blisters and rash Alexine had were much different.

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The doctor examined Alexine and declared that she had smallpox and needed to be taken to the Pest House. Her family was quarantined and a sign hung on their door saying "Smallpox Within." Her family could not leave the house for any reason.

Bartz remembered that the Pest House was an old adobe building on the outskirts of town. The child lay in bed for ten days, very ill. She had to be bathed in a solution that helped heal the blisters more quickly. Once she started to feel better, she was taken to the barracks where sick people of all ages lay.

One night Alexine heard a commotion going on outside. She put on her coat and slipped out the door. She saw ten wooden boxes laid out in a row. Several men came out bearing sheet-covered bodies and laid them in the boxes one by one. They placed the coffins on a wagon that took them to the cemetery. Bartz wrote, "When I was in high school, this memory of that night stood out in my mind like a page out of Charles Dickens' novels." This young girl survived to tell her story, but many people did not.

British physician Edward Jenner discovered the vaccine used against smallpox. Jenner found that those who had been exposed to cowpox, a contagious viral disease of cows, became immune to smallpox. His work was the base for the development of the science of immunology. The now-familiar term "vaccination" stems from Jenner's first instance of immunization with vaccina, or the cowpox virus, to produce immunity to variola or smallpox.

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In 1967, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) started efforts to eradicate smallpox. At this time, an estimated 15 million people were infected with smallpox annually, and two million of them died while millions were left disfigured and blinded.

Dr. Donald Ainslie Henderson, director of the WHO's eradication unit, and his team were credited in 1980 with the eradication of smallpox. Smallpox immunization is the most impressive achievement in the history of medicine, having saved over 50 million lives. Today, routine smallpox vaccinations have been discontinued. Although smallpox has been eradicated, there are still some smallpox virus stock kept in laboratories in Russia, China, Great Britain and in Atlanta, GA, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Efforts to vaccinate children against communicable diseases continue, but one disease is history: smallpox.  

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