Using social media to gather 50-year-old smallpox stories

A four-month long experiment in the use of social media to gather people’s memories about the 1962 smallpox outbreak in Wales comes to an end today.

Tracking the events of 50 years ago – often day by day – the Smallpox1962 blog-site used WordPress, Twitter and Facebook (as well as more traditional means) to engage with people who were caught up in events which left no-0ne in south Wales untouched.

Fifty years ago today, the South Wales Echo carried the front page news that the third and final phase of the Welsh smallpox outbreak was over.  It had been four months since the start of the crisis, when a traveller from Pakistan arrived in Cardiff and was diagnosed with the disease. Shuka Mia survived, but 19 people died – six in the Llantrisant and Rhondda areas and 13 in Bridgend. During that period, 900,000 people in south Wales were vaccinated and a huge operation was mounted to trace contacts and contain the outbreak.

Original – and revealing – documents from the official files (recently released by the National Archive) are included on the site.

Over the past four months, Smallpox1962 registered more than 11,000 page hits and more than 50 people posted their personal recollections.  A group of radio journalism students from the University of Glamorgan recorded some of those stories and the audio can be heard on the site.

ITV Wales featured the project in a Wales This Week programme which recalled the 1962 outbreak and interviewed some of those who had contacted the site.  The programme included interviews with some of the Glamorgan students involved.

One of the surprising results of the project has been the number of people over the age of 65 who have contacted the website directly. The Twitter page (@smallpox62) attracted only a handful of followers and Facebook generated only a limited number of responses.  The busiest days on the site coincided with coverage of the project on BBC Wales radio and television, in Media Wales daily and weekly papers and on ITV Wales This Week.

With no funding – but considerable voluntary effort – Smallpox1962 has succeeded in engaging the public and creating a permanent online archive of the events of 50 years ago.

About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism.
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