In the not-so-distant past, smallpox was a scourge of mankind. It spread wildly through vulnerable populations, killing up to 30% of those it infected; those who survived were left scarred, some seriously disfigured or blind.
Smallpox ravaged the world’s population essentially unchecked for more than 3,000 years, sickening Egyptian pharaohs, British royalty, American presidents, and millions in between. But in the 1970s, the disease was nearing the end of its reign. Thanks to massive vaccination and surveillance efforts, smallpox became the first disease to be eradicated from the world. Today, we celebrate 30 years since the people of the world declared themselves free of its grasp.
The last stand
The final case of naturally occurring smallpox took place in Somalia in October of 1977, in a cook named Ali Maow Maalin. Personnel from the global eradication program immediately began efforts to find every individual Maalin had been in contact with, doing house-by-house searches and vaccinating anyone entering or leaving his town. By December 29, 1977, they completed a national search, and Maalin’s case proved to be the last. He survived.
Two years later, in December of 1979, the World Health Organization’s Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication held its final meeting. Based on worldwide surveillance data and documentation, the members of the commission agreed that smallpox could be declared officially eradicated, and prepared a final report.
May 8, 1980, marked the date of a plenary meeting of the World Health Assembly (the decision-making body of WHO) in Geneva. The global commission’s final report was presented, and an historic resolution adopted. It read:
The Thirty-third World Health Assembly, on this the eighth day of May 1980:
- Declares solemnly that the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America;
- Expresses its deep gratitude to all nations and individuals who contributed to the success of this noble and historic endeavor;
- Calls this unprecedented achievement in the history of public health to the attention of all nations, which by their collective action have freed mankind of this ancient scourge and, in so doing, have demonstrated how nations working together in a common cause may further human progress.
Thirty years have now passed since that resolution was adopted, and generations of children have been born who–thanks to vaccines and the global eradication program–will never see a case of smallpox. D.A. Henderson, MD, who directed the worldwide eradication campaign, discusses a typical case of smallpox in the interview segment below.
D.A. Henderson Discusses Smallpox [YouTube video]
Those of us here at the History of Vaccines project aren’t the only ones celebrating the anniversary of smallpox eradication. This August, in accordance with its goal “to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the global eradication of smallpox and to create worldwide recognition of this unprecedented public health achievement and its lessons for the future,” the Emory Global Health Institute’s SEC2010 Secretariat will coordinate a scientific symposium, “Smallpox Eradication After 30 Years: Lessons, Legacies and Innovations.” The symposium will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from August 24-27; more information can be found at smallpox2010.org.