December 9, 1979: Smallpox Declared Extinct!

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A Brief History

On December 9, 1979, history was made when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the smallpox virus in nature had been made extinct.  Only samples in labs for scientific purposes remained.

Digging Deeper

Smallpox is the first and so far only (major) human disease to be totally eradicated by the efforts of human science and medicine.   A terrible disease, smallpox may have first shown up in humans anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 years ago and regularly killed millions of people each year.  Many historical figures died of the disease, and the mummy of the Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt even left physical evidence of the disease from c. 1145 B.C.. 

Smallpox usually had a mortality rate of 20%, but it was sometimes as high 80%.  Many who survived were left scarred, blinded and with severe arthritis and limb deformities.  In fact, for millennia, smallpox was the main cause of blindness. 

History and Headlines Trivia: The only other infectious disease believed to have been eradicated is Rinderpest, also known as “cattle plague,” an animal disease affecting cattle and ungulate (hoofed) wild animals, such as buffalos, giraffes, antelopes and warthogs.

White settlers brought smallpox to the Americas, and Native American suffered terribly from its effects.  Like a type of germ warfare, smallpox was spread to Native Americans by Europeans over blankets and clothing which had purposely been contaminated with the virus.  Smallpox became the chief (no pun intended) cause of death among Native Americans and wiped out vast portions of their populations.  Smallpox continued to be used in biological warfare through the Cold War, when an accidental release by the Soviets of “weaponized” smallpox killed some of their own people in the Aral Sea area.

Although Edward Jenner helped contribute to the creation of a vaccine around 1800, deaths due to smallpox would continue for the next 150+ years.  In the 1900s, there were still millions of cases, and perhaps as many as 300 to 500 million people died of smallpox during the 20th century.  In 1967 alone, an estimated 2 million people died of the disease.  It was shortly thereafter that smallpox vaccination programs and measures by the WHO to identify and isolate smallpox breakouts finally brought the disease under control, and the last-known naturally occurring cases were in Somalia in 1977 and in England in 1978 when a medical photographer became the last recorded fatality. 

What disease would you like to see be eradicated next?

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.