At what age was the smallpox vaccine given? Does it last for life, have I had one - and UK vaccination history

When was the smallpox vaccine stopped in the UK? Here is everything you need to know about the vaccination

Contacts of monkeypox cases who are at high risk of contracting the disease should self-isolate for 21 days, according to new official recommendations.

People who have had “unprotected direct contact or high-risk environmental contact” should now isolate for three weeks, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

This includes not travelling, providing information for contact tracing, and avoiding direct contact with immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women, and children under the age of 12.

The unusual spread of the disease - rarely found outside of western Africa - has caught scientists off guard, and has people recalling the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But officials say the threat from monkeypox does not yet equal that of coronavirus for a number of reasons. It is a known virus - as opposed to the “novel” coronavirus - and smallpox vaccines that work effectively against the similarly structured smallpox disease are readily available.

The UKHSA also advises that contacts of monkeypox cases are offered a smallpox vaccine - but how can you check if you have already had one? And for how long does the jab’s effects last?


Here is everything you need to know about it.

When was the smallpox vaccine halted in the UK?

One-year-old Tommy Riscoli is vaccinated against smallpox at St Pancras Town Hall in London after a smallpox scare in Bradford (Photo: Edward Miller/Getty Images)

The vaccination of children against smallpox ended in the UK in 1971, as the disease had been almost entirely eradicated, and had not been endemic in the UK since the 1930s.

However, the disease was not declared completely eradicated worldwide until 1980, and outbreaks caused by overseas travel and laboratory accidents were not uncommon.

The vaccination of children within the first three months of life had been made mandatory in England and Wales by the Vaccination Act of 1853.


If parents of these children failed to comply with the legislation, they faced fines and even the possibility of jail time.

But even if you were born before 1971, it is not guaranteed that you will have had a smallpox vaccination, and parents in the UK had been avoiding the vaccine for years, with rates far lower than for other diseases.

Resistance began almost immediately after the 1853 law was passed, with violent riots breaking out in a number of cities, fueled mostly by the perception that mandatory vaccines constituted a big government intrusion on people’s private lives.

For a number of reasons, the 1960s began to see a change in attitudes towards routine vaccination, and immunisation rates increased to the point where the Ministry of Health was no longer concerned about large epidemics.

This shift was fueled in part by the increasing accessibility of air travel, and routine vaccination was promoted as a way to protect children against imported disease while also allowing them to travel across the world.

Five imported cases in 1961 and 1962 also coincided with the Commonwealth Immigration Bill, sparking vigorous public discussion about Britain’s responsibility towards its old colonies, and the immigration of Commonwealth citizens as Britain became more multicultural.


Vials of smallpox vaccine (Photo: Chris Livingston/Getty Images)

Press coverage at the time prompted a re-examination of vaccination science, with additional trials providing more precise data, assuaging public worries.

By the 1970s, the threat of smallpox had diminished even further, and the decision to stop routine vaccination was never questioned.

Vaccination for at-risk groups did continue, and the government kept and managed freeze-dried and liquid vaccine reserves in case of emergency.

What does a smallpox vaccination scar look like?

A smallpox vaccine scar is a small but noticeable mark left behind by smallpox immunisation.


The scar may be circular or oblong in shape and appear to be deeper than the surrounding skin - it is usually smaller than a pencil eraser’s diameter, though it can be larger.

Smallpox vaccination scars can be itchy or uncomfortable for some people. This is a natural reaction to scarring in the body.

Other vaccinations use thin needles to inject fluid, but the smallpox inoculation required a two-pronged needle; because the vaccination produces an injury at the injection site, a scar develops.

The immune system of the body responds to the live virus in the vaccination by forming a defence that pushes the virus out, a reaction which causes the scarring.

A doctor points out a patient’s scars from previous smallpox vaccinations (Photo: Chris Livingston/Getty Images)

Smallpox vaccinations are usually given in the upper part of the left arm, however doctors have been known to give them in other places, such as the buttocks.


However, a scar as described above is not a guarantee that you have received a smallpox vaccine in the past, and such a mark could have been caused by other factors.

How can I check if I’ve had a smallpox vaccine?

Though it is reasonably unlikely that you have had a smallpox vaccine if you are lucky enough to be under the age of around 50, you still may be wondering if there are ways to check your vaccination history.

A request for information from your health (medical) records must be made to the data controller, the organisation that owns your health records. In this instance, this will typically be your GP surgery.

Contact the relevant hospital trust’s records manager or patient services manager for hospital health records.

You can find a list of hospital trusts on the NHS website.


How long does the smallpox vaccine last?

According to the CDC, smallpox vaccination provides full immunity for three to five years, with immunity gradually fading beyond that.

Immunity lasts significantly longer if a person is vaccinated again later, and historically, the vaccination prevents infection in 95 percent of individuals who have received it.

Booster vaccines may be required if you require long-term protection, and are recommended every three years.