The Team that Eradicated Smallpox
Smallpox was one of the most terrifying diseases in human history. Smallpox plagued humanity for thousands of years, killing one-third of its victims and disfiguring those who survived. Edward Jenner’s vaccine, introduced in 1798, brought relief to industrialized nations; but as recently as the 1960s, the disease still killed almost two million people each year in developing countries.
Maryland high school senior Matthew Blum created the video, “Smallpox Eradication: The End of a Disease and the Beginning of a New Era in Public Health,” which tells the story of smallpox and the dedicated team that fought to rid the world of this deadly disease. The video won sixth place at the 2015 National History Day Competition.
In the 1960s, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) goal to eradicate smallpox was considered nearly impossible. In Blum’s video, members of the original program speak about their “war against disease” and the logistical, political and organizational challenges they faced along the way. Even the head of communicable diseases at WHO thought the idea so far-fetched that he said he would eat a tire if they succeeded at eradicating smallpox in India.
In 1966, Dr. Donald Henderson, a young epidemiologist, was selected to lead the eradication effort. Henderson recruited young idealists for his team, saying “That was the big advantage in the program. You had a number of people who simply didn’t know that this was an impossible task.”
Through mass immunization and surveillance, Henderson and his team prevailed; the last naturally occurring case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977. The smallpox eradication campaign was officially declared a success in 1980, making smallpox the first infectious disease to be eradicated.
Techniques first developed for smallpox eradication continue to shape disease surveillance and vaccine strategies to this day. One such technique is surveillance-containment. Rather than attempting to vaccinate each man, woman and child around the globe, the WHO team identified any possible cases of smallpox, then isolated and vaccinated the affected individual and anyone they may have come in contact with. In this way, they were able to contain the spread of the virus and systematically defeat it.
Dr. Jon Andrus, Sabin’s executive vice president and director of Vaccine Advocacy and Education, said of his experience with polio eradication, “I certainly appreciated how much we benefited from the success of the smallpox eradication program.”
To learn more about the history of smallpox and the lasting impacts of its eradication, watch Blum’s video: