GALICIA, SPAIN—The Sabin Vaccine Institute was represented at an international gathering in La Coluña, Spain to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the departure of the Balmis-Salvany Expedition. Ciro de Quadros, MD, MPH, director of international programs for the Institute, was on hand to deliver a technical presentation and witness the unveiling of a life-size sculpture that depicts children who were instrumental in the Spanish expedition to carry smallpox vaccine from the kingdom to colonies in the Americas and Asia.

Before the smallpox vaccine was discovered, the disease killed people of all ages and all socioeconomic classes. In the late 18th century 400,000 Europeans died and one-third of survivors went blind as a result of the disease. Edward Jenner reported his experimentation with the vaccine in 1798 and the world immediately wanted it.

Like Europe, the Spanish colonies incurred grave mortality and morbidity due to smallpox and by the end of the 18th century, Spain projected serious economic losses as a result of the diminishing labor force in the colonies. In 1803, King Charles IV of Spain, who had lost one of his own children to smallpox, issued a royal order to provide the vaccine and sponsored the expedition.

The Balmis-Salvany expedition, named for the doctors who led it, was the first official program of mass vaccination in Spanish America and the world. The expedition left the Spanish harbor of La Coruña on November 30, 1803. The ship’s cargo included vaccine serum preserved between sealed glass plates; also on board were 21 children from the orphanage at La Coruña who carried the vaccine through arm-to-arm vaccinations performed sequentially during the ship’s journey.

The Balmis-Salvany expedition is significant not only because of the vaccine but also because it institutionalized vaccination boards that would keep records of the vaccinations performed and preserve the serum for future vaccinations. Since that expedition, worldwide collaborative efforts have successfully vaccinated populations to the point that in 1980 the World Health Organization was able to declare that smallpox had been eradicated.

Dr. de Quadros, who participated in the smallpox eradication effort, was presented a small-scale replica of the 10-foot commemorative sculpture dedicated November 29 at dockside in La Coruña, where the expedition departed 200 years prior. The sculpture by Acisclo Manzano is titled “Angel of Hope” and depicts two of the orphan children who made the main goal of the expedition possible by keeping the smallpox virus alive on their infected skin. The sculpture shows them in the embrace of their guardian.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The photograph is available in electronic format.

The mission of the Albert B. Sabin Vaccine Institute is to save lives by stimulating development of new vaccines and increasing immunization rates throughout the world. Founded in 1993, the Institute pursues Dr. Albert Sabin’s vision of a world protected from disease by vaccines.