Written by Leigh Henderson
One of the most significant anniversaries in human history passed recently with little fanfare. Forty years ago, on May 8, 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox had been eradicated.
Smallpox had been transmitted in an uninterrupted chain from person to person for at least 3,000 years. Unlike bubonic plague, it was endemic—always present—killing some 20-30% of those infected and leaving many of the survivors blind and most horribly scarred. Children bore the brunt of smallpox—many adults had survived the disease or been successfully vaccinated. Children under 15 could account for 75% of all deaths in an epidemic.
On January 1, 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) started a global smallpox eradication program. Smallpox control efforts had ended endemic smallpox in much of the world, but epidemics introduced by travellers were rife. Smallpox was conservatively estimated to infect 10 million people annually, causing 2 million deaths.
On October 26, 1977, a Somali man became the last victim of smallpox in the world. Two years of exhaustive searches for any remaining smallpox reservoirs followed. A global commission reviewed the evidence and concluded that smallpox had indeed been eradicated.Continue reading