There is hope: 40 years ago, the world defeated the disease that claimed 300 M lives

Images via WHO
  • Nearly 40 years ago, the world won the battle against smallpox, a disease that claimed over 300 million lives in the 20th century alone
  • In 1967, the WHO launched the 10-year Intensified Smallpox Eradication Programme
  • In 1980, smallpox was officially declared as “eradicated” and until now, the only disease to be permanently eradicated worldwide

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak that has been affecting millions of people worldwide, let us remember how the world eradicated the disease that plagued humanity for 3,000 years.

Image via Pixabay

Nearly 40 years ago, the health authorities, the world leaders, and the people won the battle against the disease that claimed more than 300 million lives in the 20th century alone.

“Smallpox is the first and only disease to be permanently eradicated worldwide. Until it was wiped out, smallpox had plagued humanity for at least 3,000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone, that is four million people annually,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In 1967, the WHO launched the 10-year Intensified Smallpox Eradication Programme to concentrate on endemic countries. It focused mainly on surveillance, case finding, contact tracing, ring vaccination, and communication campaigns to better inform the affected populations. Numerous countries–including Guinea, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Togo, among others–issued smallpox stamps to raise awareness about the eradication program.

“By 1973, the number of countries with smallpox had declined. The last variola major infection was recorded in Bangladesh in October 1975, and the last variola minor infection occurred two years later in Merka, Somalia on October 1977,” the international organization disclosed.

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“During the following two years, the WHO teams searched the African continent for smallpox. No further cases were found. An unfortunate laboratory incident led to two cases in 1978, which in turn led to global efforts for additional containment,” it added.

It was a long and tiring battle — but it was able to reach its end. In December 1979, the members of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication signed their names to the statement that “smallpox has been eradicated from the world.”

At the 33rd World Health Assembly, in May 8, 1980, smallpox was officially endorsed as “eradicated”.

40 years later

This May 18, the WHO will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox.

“A smallpox commemorative postal stamp developed by the United Nations Postal Administration, in collaboration with the WHO, will be unveiled to honour the millions of people working together, from world leaders and international organizations to rural doctors and community health workers to eradicate smallpox. It is the first and only human disease eradicated on a global scale through the collaboration of countries worldwide,” the WHO stated.

“Commemorating the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication is a reminder of the power of international health cooperation to do significant and lasting good. Together in solidarity, we can beat COVID-19,” it emphasized.