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WHO Announces End of Smallpox

Updated: Nov 24

#03 Science in History

8th May 1980

Statue outside the WHO HQ entrance, Geneva.

In 1967, The World Health Organization (WHO) launched widespread surveillance, immunisation and quarantine programmes involving over 150,000 medical personnel. This culminated in the global eradication of smallpox, announced by the WHO in May 1980. In 1977, a hospital cook in Somalia became the last naturally occurring case.

Smallpox had been with us for thousands of years and was one of the most devastating diseases known to our species, causing millions of deaths and untold suffering. Caused by the variola virus, it had a mortality rate of around 40% with survivors suffering from disfigurement, blindness or infertility.

image credit: wikipedia

In the 18th century, Edward Jenner had vaccinated a young boy with cowpox which protected him from smallpox. Even with the development of a vaccine, though, smallpox was still a scourge well into the 20th century.

The very last person to die from smallpox was Janet Parker who contracted the virus in Birmingham, UK, in 1978. Janet worked close to a research lab at the University of Birmingham where the smallpox was being studied. How she was infected, however, remains a mystery.

Following this tragedy, research labs were closed. Now there are only two places that hold stocks of the variola - Atlanta and Moscow.

Eradicated? Not quite.


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