How the monkeypox vaccine was discovered.

In the late 1700s, a British doctor saw a connection between cows and the women who milked them.

Then he created "one of the world's best vaccines" that today can protect people against monkeypox.

3D-illustration föreställande apkoppsvirus.
3D illustration representing monkeypox virus.

I don't think that many people in Sweden know this story," says Lennart Svensson, Professor of Molecular Virology at Linköping University.

The vaccine discoverer was a British doctor named Edward Jenner. In the late 1700s he proved that the serum from cowpox protects against smallpox infection.

He found that women who milk cows rarely or never got smallpox but that cows usually had cowpox on their teats, says Svensson and continues:

He thought it was really strange. The women had quite often small wounds on their hands when they milked and were then passively vaccinated with cowpox.

Smallpox at the time

Smallpox gained a foothold in Europe about a thousand years ago and became a feared part of people's everyday lives. The disease affected children in particular and gave rise to the saying: "A child cannot be counted as a family until it has survived smallpox."

Sixty million Europeans died, of which 90 percent were children. However, Edward Jenner's discovery came to be the salvation. The first smallpox vaccination was carried out in Sweden in 1801, and in 1816 it became mandatory to vaccinate all children.

This is perhaps the world's best vaccine. Why? Because we have eliminated smallpox from the planet, says Lennart Svensson.

Chicken pox

The smallpox vaccine was part of the general vaccination programme until 1976 and in 1980 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the world free from the disease.

It takes two things, one that the infection only affects humans, and the other that there is a good vaccine, and it was perfect for smallpox.

The stem of the cowpox is called "vaccinating" and the word comes from "vacc ́a" which means "cow" in Latin and it was therefore cowpox that Lennart Svensson used when he made smallpox vaccine fifty years ago.

It was a German group that took cowpox and grew it on chicken and chicken cells. So in the 70's we made smallpox vaccines by taking cowpox and growing them on fertilized chicken eggs. And then you get a liquid and it was the vaccine, he says.

It's the vaccine that you're about to use against monkeypox, and it's probably going to work just fine.



Rash on the skin is the most common symptom of the highly contagious disease smallpox. It was spread mainly as a drip infection and had previously high mortality.

In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the world smallpox free, thus ending a more than ten - year eradication project.

The last time Sweden had an outbreak of smallpox was 1963 in Stockholm, where 27 people fell ill and four died.

Smallpox was the first disease to be successfully vaccinated against. All children were vaccinated against the disease between 1816 and 1976.

Chicken pox:

Monkeypox is a disease that can be transmitted between animals and humans. It was discovered in monkeys and was therefore named monkeypox, but it is probably different rodents in Central and West African rainforests that are reservoirs of the virus.

During the spring of 2022, an unusually high number of monkeypox cases have been found in several countries. Transmission of viruses appears to have occurred mainly through sexual contacts between men who have sex with men.

Apox often causes rashes, ulcers and blisters. Symptoms are often mild but can become severe in people at risk. In older studies conducted in Africa, some mortality has also been reported.

There are medicines that appear to have some effect against the infection and can be used in case of severe disease.

All cases of infection with monkeypox should be reported to the infection doctor in the region and to the Public Health Agency.

Source: Public Health Authority.