The Weekly Reflektion Week 12 / 2020

Edward Jenner worked as a doctor in England in the 1790’s and he experienced at close hand the tragedies associated with smallpox. At that time about 10% of the population died of smallpox every year and this figure was higher in the cities (20%) where people were in close contact with each other. Following up his observations in a logical manner led to the development of the smallpox vaccination.

Do you listen to what people are telling you? Do you try to understand why they have the views or opinions that they have? Do you try to see the connections between what the people say, your own experiences and how to make your operation safer and more efficient?

During his rounds in the rural areas where he was a doctor, Edward Jenner talked to the people and was genuinely interested in what they had to say. Smallpox was often a topic of conversation especially during the epidemics that swept through the country. A milk maiden told him that she wasn’t afraid of smallpox since milk maidens never got smallpox. She even mentioned that she earned extra money by caring for people that were sick in the knowledge that she would not become infected. Jenner discussed this with colleagues in the district, but they dismissed this as an old wife’s tale and that there was no scientific basis for such an assertion. Jenner was however curious as to why the girl would be so confident in her opinion that she would risk her life in exposing herself to the smallpox virus. He decided to investigate further and soon discovered that the girl, and the other milk maidens, had been infected with ‘cowpox’, a disease contracted from the cows they milked. The cowpox virus is similar to the smallpox virus however its effects are less dramatic, normally a slight fever and a skin rash. The immunity built up to the cowpox virus also gave immunity to the smallpox virus. Jenner was not the first doctor to note the connection between the cowpox and smallpox virus. Jenner was also not the first to use the infected cowpox sores to prevent smallpox. A farmer in Dorset in the 1770s had infected his family with pus from a cowpox sore to protect then during a smallpox epidemic. It was Jenner however that carried out the systematic tests and experiments to document the affect and convince the medical community of the immunization. The term vaccination comes from the Latin word ‘vacca’ for cow. The elimination of smallpox through vaccination is one of the most important factors for increasing life expectancy in the history of medicine. When smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979, it had already killed an estimated 300–500 million people in the 20th century alone.

Listening to what people say and trying to understand the message and the context is an important quality in any person, and especially for any person in a leader role. Dismissing peoples’ experiences as ‘old wives’ tales’ or rejecting views and opinions because the person seems obviously uneducated or inexperienced may lead to missed opportunities. With a bit of patience and faith in the people in your organisation you may make improvements you never imagined possible.

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