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Lancet owned by Edward Jenner, England, 1720-1800

Lancet owned by Edward Jenner, England, 1720-1800

Credits: Science Museum

Vaccination has saved countless lives, but has always been the subject of fierce debate. Why this, rather than another medical procedure? Historically there have been arguments about its safety and clinical worth, and large-scale protest against compulsory vaccination. But there are deeper issues at work too – about the body and belief. At least four cuts would be made in the flesh of the arm using this sharp blade or lancet. Vaccine matter, containing a small amount of infectious particles, would then be smeared into the cuts. This was the method of vaccination in Britain during the 1800s, when infectious diseases killed tens of thousands of people. Was it painful? Often it was, but the outcome was the justification – establishing an immune response and eventual protection from the disease. Religious objections were particularly strong. Christian groups viewed scarring the skin and the introduction of foreign particles as a violation of the sacred body made in God’s image. More recently, some Muslim communities have debated whether vaccine matter is haram, unlawful for Muslims to receive because it is not halal. Could these beliefs be challenged? The medical profession and governments, give their reasons for supporting vaccination. Advocates from within religious traditions offer alternative interpretations of holy laws. Perhaps whether to trust in religion, medicine, or both will always be a point of personal opinion and debate?

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Glossary: vaccination

The introduction of vaccine into the body for the purpose of inducing immunity. Coined originally to apply to the injection of smallpox vaccine, the term has come to mean any immunising procedure in which vaccine is injected.

Glossary: cowpox

Viral infection of cows' udders, transmitted to humans by direct contact, causing very mild symptoms similar to smallpox.

Glossary: lancets

A surgical instrument of various forms, commonly sharp-pointed and two-edged. The lancet is used in venesection (the act of opening a vein for bloodletting), and in opening abscesses.

Glossary: lymph

Clear, slightly yellowish fluid derived from the blood and similar in composition to plasma. Lymph conveys white blood cells and some nutrients to the tissues.

Glossary: smallpox

Smallpox is an infectious virus unique to humans. It results in a characteristic skin rash and fluid-filled blisters. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the World Health Organisation certified the eradication of smallpox in 1979. Smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely wiped out.

Glossary: bloodletting

Puncturing a vein in order to withdraw blood. A popular medical practice for over two thousand years. Bloodletting often involved withdrawing large quantities of blood in the belief that this would cure or prevent many illnesses and diseases. The practice has been abandoned for all but a few very specific conditions.