9 Dec 1979: Eradication of the Smallpox Virus

9 Dec, 1979– The eradication of the smallpox virus is certified, making smallpox the first and to date only human disease driven to extinction.


Smallpox is an acute contagious disease caused by the variola virus, transmitted from person to person through tiny drops of an infected person’s saliva when the person coughs, talks, or sneezes It was one of the world’s most devastating diseases , whose known  case was in Somalia in 1977. It was declared eradicated in 1980 following an unprecedented global immunization campaign led by the World Health Organization. Samples of smallpox virus have been kept for research purposes. This has led to concerns that smallpox could someday be used as a biological warfare agent.

Smallpox is believed to have emerged in human populations about 10,000 BC but is not clearly described in either the Old or New Testaments  or in the literature of the Greeks or Romans. The earliest physical evidence of it is probably the pustular rash on the mummified body of Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt. (1145 BC).  During the Middle Ages  smallpox made periodic incursions into Europe but did not become established there until the population increased and population movement became more active during the era of the Crusades

There are no descriptions of smallpox-like disease in the Americas, which had no exposure to the virus prior to the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. . It devastated the native Amerindian population and was an important factor in the conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas  by the Spaniards .Historians believe that smallpox and other European diseases reduced the indigenous population of North and South America by up to 90 percent. Recognizing its potency as a biological weapon, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War, even advocated handing out smallpox-infected blankets to his Native American foes in 1763.

By the mid-18th century smallpox was a major endemic disease everywhere in the world except in Australia and in a number of small islands

In the 17th and 18th centuries, it killed several reigning European monarchs, including Habsburg Emperor Joseph I, Queen Mary II of England, Czar Peter II of Russia and King Louis XV of France, as well as an Ethiopian king, a Chinese emperor and two Japanese emperors. Queen Elizabeth I of England and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln also apparently contracted smallpox during their time in office, though they fortuitously lived to tell the tale. Meanwhile, in Europe alone, it was a leading cause of death , killing an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year and was responsible for a third of all blindness.  Of all those infected, 20–60 percent—and over 80 percent of infected children—died from the disease . During the 20th century it was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths.

In 1796, English doctor Edward Jenner performed an experiment that would cause the virus’ downfall. By inserting pus from a milkmaid with cowpox, a disease closely related to smallpox, into the arms of a healthy 8-year-old boy, Jenner was able to conclude that a person could be protected from smallpox without having to be directly exposed to it. This was the world’s first successful vaccine, a term that Jenner himself coined

After vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the  global eradication of smallpox was certified by a commission of eminent scientists on 9 December 1979 and subsequently endorsed by the World Health Assembly on 8 May 1980. The WHO’s resolution stated: “The world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox…. unprecedented achievement in the history of public health demonstrated how nations working together in a common cause may further human progress.” Today, guarded laboratories in Atlanta and Moscow hold the only known stores of the virus. Some experts say these should be destroyed, whereas others believe they should be kept around for research purposes just in case smallpox somehow remerges.

As already said, famous historical figures who contracted smallpox include.  Peter II of Russia who died of the disease at 15 years of age in 1730.US. Presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln  all contracted and recovered from the disease.

Several relatives of Henry VIII survived the disease but were scarred by it. These include his sister, his fourth wife, and his two daughters: Mary  in 1527 and Elizabeth I  in 1562 (as an adult she would often try to disguise the pockmarks with heavy makeup).  Also his great-niece, Mary, Queen of Scots contracted the disease as a child but had no visible scarring.

In 1767, the 11-year-old composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart survived a smallpox outbreak in Austria that killed the Empress Maria Josepha  and  Archduchess Maria Josepha..

Also soviet leader Joseph Stalin fell ill with smallpox at the age of seven.. Since  his face was badly scarred by the disease, he later had photographs retouched to make his pockmarks less apparent.

People thought that the disease was caused by smallpox demons. Such beliefs were prominent in Japan, Europe, Africa, and other parts of the world. Nearly all cultures who believed in the demon also believed that it was afraid of the color red. This led to the invention of so-called red treatment, where victims and their rooms would be decorated in red. The practice spread to Europe in the 12th century and was practiced also by Elizabeth I of England. (This belief persisted even until the 1930s. and  studies proved that red light reduced scarring)

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