40th Anniversary of Smallpox Eradication Celebrated

Smallpox vaccines contain live vaccinia virus
celebration with balloons

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced it will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox.

Smallpox is the first and only human disease eradicated on a global scale through the collaboration of countries worldwide said the WHO in a May 8, 2020 statement.

There are many lessons to learn from the eradication of smallpox that can help fight COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics. 

Until it was wiped out, smallpox had plagued humanity for at least 3,000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

Smallpox is an ancient disease caused by the variola virus. Early symptoms include high fever and fatigue. The virus then produces a characteristic rash, particularly on the face, arms and legs, says the WHO.

The resulting spots become filled with clear fluid and later, pus, and then form a crust, which eventually dries up and falls off. 

Smallpox was fatal in up to 30 percent of cases.

In 1967, WHO launched the 10‐year Intensified Smallpox Eradication Programme to concentrate on endemic countries. 

Efforts included surveillance, case finding, contact tracing, ring vaccination, and communication campaigns to better inform affected populations.

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 26 October 1977. 

During the following 2-years, WHO teams searched the African continent for smallpox. No further cases were found. 

An unfortunate laboratory incident led to 2 cases in 1978, which in turn led to global efforts for additional containment.

On December 9, 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, May 8, 1980, smallpox was officially endorsed as eradicated. 

The total cost of the Smallpox Eradication Programme was estimated at US $300 million. But the saving to the global economy is estimated at US $ 1 billion a year.

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, concluded this WHO statement.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the smallpox vaccine protects people from smallpox by helping their bodies develop immunity to smallpox.

The vaccine is made from a virus called vaccinia, which is a poxvirus similar to smallpox, but less harmful. 

The smallpox vaccine contains live vaccinia virus, not a killed or weakened virus like many other vaccines. For that reason, people who are vaccinated must take precautions when caring for the place on their arm where they were vaccinated, so they prevent the vaccinia virus from spreading.

Routine vaccination against smallpox in the USA ended in the 1970s. 

However, for specific populations at high risk of occupational exposure to orthopoxviruses, the 2015 Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends routine vaccination against the disease.

As of December 2019, the US Strategic National Stockpile contains 3 smallpox vaccines:

  • ACAM2000® and JYNNEOSTM (also known as Imvamune or Imvanex) are the only licensed smallpox vaccines in the USA.
  • Aventis Pasteur Smallpox Vaccine (APSV) is an investigational vaccine that may be used in a smallpox emergency under the appropriate regulatory mechanism.

Smallpox vaccine news published by Vax-Before-Travel.