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On Boosters: a Note From the Past

COVID-19 vaccine booster shots have been approved and are being rolled out, but skepticism about the vaccines themselves (to say nothing of a third shot) is still a problem in the US. There's also a debate about whether any of the shots should be required for people to re-enter society.

Unfortunately, none of this is new. According to Scientific American, a similar situation played out in the US and around the world during the 1872 smallpox pandemic. Back then, the magazine published an article about the science of vaccines and the debate over boosters (which were called revaccination).

In a parallel to today, the disease was spreading, the sick were quarantined, and there was worry about a variant that could make smallpox much more deadly. Scientists were trying to figure out how long to wait after initial inoculation before boosters were given, Scientific American says. The article from back then also notes that a law required vaccines and boosters would likely end the whole thing, but it wonders whether such a law could be enforced. 

"To insure safety from the disease, it is necessary that revaccination should be practised not only between the ages specified but even before and after the period included in those limits," the 1872 article notes. "We think there is no fact better established in medical science than that persistent revaccination will practically exterminate small pox. Had we a law compelling vaccination and revaccination, and could its enforcement be insured, we should soon cease to hear of the ravages of a scourge so dreadful. As it is, it is quite doubtful if such a law could be enforced if enacted. The best we can do at present is for the intelligent to protect themselves without law, against the neglect arising from the prejudices of the ignorant; and if, through neglect, the disease is acquired, to treat it in the most rational manner possible."