Balmis: the great Spanish feat of mass vaccination in 1803
4/15/2020 |
The Ministry of Defence has named its military deployment against the coronavirus 'Operation Balmis', paying tribute to the expedition of Francisco Javier Balmis against smallpox
Many of us have heard or read over the past few weeks that 'Operation Balmis' is the name the Ministry of Defence has given to the deployment of the armed forces against the coronavirus. What perhaps, not many people know is that it is a tribute to one of the great global adventures which was led by Spaniards

Francisco Javier Balmis (1753-1819), a military doctor from Alicante, led an expedition to vaccinate against smallpox in Latin America and the Philippines in 1803, which saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. A universal feat that marked a turning point in medicine, initiating a battle against the disease that succeeded, more than a century later, in making smallpox the first and only human disease to be eradicated (his last case was in 1978).  

The big problem of smallpox

In18th century Europe, smallpox killed approximately 200,000 people every year, most of them children. A threat that did not discriminate between social classes and affected the poorest members of society to members of the royal family, such as Luis I of Spain. 

There was a breakthrough when they discovered that those who milked cows were not infected by the disease. The British doctor Edward Jenner studied the reaction of infected fluids from an animal in a child and the results demonstrated that the child had effectively been immunised

Faced with this breakthrough, King Charles IV, in whose domain of New Granada - which covered present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama - a smallpox epidemic had broken out, and who had also suffered the loss of one of his daughters and a brother to the disease, supported the vaccination project in his vast empire led by the court physician, Francisco Javier Balmis.  


A long and difficult expedition

In 1803, the so-called Royal Philanthropic Expedition, led by Balmis, departed from La Coruña, together with the surgeon Josep Salvany and Isabel Zendal. After his arrival in Venezuela in 1804, the expedition decided to split up in order to reach more areas: Balmis went to Mexico and from there to the Philippines, but not without great difficulty. Salvany went to the south, facing harsh geographical and climatic obstacles. 

Although Jenner’s advances in the disease were already known, clandestine trafficking and smuggling of crystals with pus were being carried out, even in areas like Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico where Spanish doctors were already vaccinating the population. The great merit of the Royal Philanthropic Expedition of Balmis was to regulate the inoculation process that was largely carried out by priests, who kept vaccination records in check with baptism records. All over the continent, boards were created to ensure the correct conservation of the vaccine and to monitor its distribution through their territories. This distribution was the result of the interaction between the metropolis and the local authorities in Latin America and the Philippines.  

Isabel Zendal, the first nurse in history sent on an international mission

Daughter of Galician farmers, Isabel Zendal is considered by the World Health Organisation to be the first nurse in history who was sent on an international mission. Without her the mission would not have been possible. Director of the Hospice of La Coruña, she was in charge of the 22 children between three and nine years old, who carried the virus, on the long journey from Spain to Latin America and the Philippines and from which the vaccine was prepared. 

And we cannot forget the other great protagonist of this expedition, the Catalan Josep Salvany, who died vaccinating, due to the typhus he had previously contracted in Spain.  


More than 250,000 children vaccinated

It is estimated that the expedition led by Balmis succeeded in vaccinating more than 250,000 children around the world. Even on the British-dominated island of St. Helena, the doctor from Alicante managed to convince the authorities to vaccinate its population. Even the discoverer of the vaccine, Edward Jenner, said of the expedition that "I cannot imagine that the annals of history will provide a more noble or extensive example of philanthropy than this one