When Francisco Javier de Balmis left Spain in 1803 to vaccinate people in the Spanish colonies against smallpox, he had no means of keeping the vaccine fresh, so he used children as refrigerators.
An exhibition of documents related to Balmis’s journey has been opened at the General Archive of the Indies in Seville and will be on display until September 15.
From the documents, we now know for the first time the names and ages of the children who made possible what was perhaps the first international humanitarian mission.
Manuel Álvarez, curator of the exhibition, described it as “a tribute to all health workers who have fought against Covid-19.”
Smallpox was killing millions in 18th century Europe, but in 1796 the English physician Edward Jenner discovered that a bovine version of the disease worked as a vaccine.
Balmis, who was a court and military physician, convinced King Carlos IV of Spain, whose daughter had died of smallpox, to finance the royal philanthropic expedition of vaccines to the Spanish colonies.
The goal, visionary in its day, was not only to vaccinate the population but to set up vaccination centers to control future outbreaks of the disease.
The expedition left A Coruña, in northwestern Spain, with 22 orphans on board. Isabel Zendal’s nine-year-old son, who ran the local orphanage, was among them. Zendal served as a nurse and carer on the trip.
The vaccine survived only 12 days in vitro, so Balmis’s technique was to infect two children every 10 days and then take the serum from their pustules to infect two more children, and so on until they reached their destination with fresh serum. with which to vaccinate. people.
The children fell ill but did not die and, although it seems barbarous, at that time it was considered quite normal. Jenner himself first tested his vaccine on an eight-year-old boy.
The original 22 children stayed in Mexico, where Balmis recruited 26 others for the trip from Acapulco to the Philippines. The documents show that the children, all Mexican males between the ages of four and 14, were turned over by their parents in exchange for payment. Some are described as “Spanish” and others as mestizos (mixed blood).
Three are listed as of unknown origin and in the case of another five, only their mother’s name appears on the documentation.
By the end of the campaign, some 300,000 people in the Canary Islands, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, the Philippines and China had received the vaccine for free.
“The strategy adopted by Balmis was a cheap, ingenious and pioneering solution to ensure that the vaccine reached the Americas in good condition,” said Alberto García-Basteiro, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Barcelona.
“Today the strategy of using children to transport the vaccine is likely to be criticized on ethical grounds, but the impact and benefits of the expedition cannot be denied.”
The Madrid hospital named after Isabel Zendal has played a key role during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2000, when the Madrid government sent 2,500 soldiers to disinfect the region’s homes for the elderly, they called it Operation Balmis.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism