There is only one human disease that has been completely eradicated: smallpox. From ancient Egypt to medieval Europe to the last century, smallpox was a deadly, consistent part of humanity. With a death toll of over 300 million people, its existence shifted the course of human history. Two centuries after the first widespread smallpox vaccine was developed, smallpox was no longer a threat. Smallpox, or variola virus, is a contagious virus that causes fever and skin rashes; there are different forms of the virus - variola minor and variola major. Symptoms of variola included high fever, body aches, vomiting, and mouth sores. Smallpox was transmitted through direct and face-to-face contact and through any material touched by the scabs and sores on an infected person’s body. Thirty percent of those with variola major died, and survivors were often left with permanent scars and blindness.
History of Smallpox
While the exact origins of smallpox are unknown, mummies from the 18th and 20th Egyptian dynasties were found with smallpox scars on their faces around 3,000 years ago. Smallpox was thought to have traveled to India by ancient Egyptian merchants and was mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts. Between the fifth and seventh centuries, smallpox was introduced to Europe, where it slowed the development of civilizations through epidemic, like in the case of the Roman Empire and the plague of Antonine. Using biological warfare, European conquistadors introduced smallpox to native American populations and caused widespread devastation to the Incan and Aztec empires. The same was done during the French and Indian War.
Since 460 BCE, it was discovered that smallpox survivors could become immune to the disease, leading to people searching for a cure and trying herbal remedies, cold treatments, and other types of treatment. Variolation, a process where people without smallpox were infected with material from smallpox sores, was one of the most successful methods of preventing smallpox. People who went through variolation often developed smallpox symptoms, but rarely died from it. Benjamin Jesty is often credited as the first to create a smallpox vaccine. He successfully kept his wife and two sons safe from smallpox by transferring material from cowpox-infected cattle to the arms of his family. Similarly, Edward Jenner used established ideas on variolation and his own research on the association between cowpox and smallpox to develop the first widespread smallpox vaccine in the late 18th century.
The Impact of Medical Research & Communities
It would be negligent to say that Jenner’s work was immediately accepted and implemented by physicians to prevent smallpox. In fact, it was quite the opposite. In 1797, Jenner’s first publication about his experiments was rejected by the Royal Society and the small booklet “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire and Known by the Name of Cow Pox” that he published the followed year was met with mixed reactions. It wasn’t until he started receiving support from Dr. George Pearson and Dr. William Woodville that vaccinations gained popularity. Within two years, Thomas Jefferson had reached out to Jenner and provided him with international recognition and support.
It is important to acknowledge the coordination and efforts poured into creating a vaccine, much less the eradication of a disease through widespread vaccination. In 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced a global eradication program for smallpox, which unfortunately failed. Smallpox was successfully eradicated in North America (1952) and Europe (1953), but lack of funding, commitment, and vaccine donations meant that Africa, Asia, and South America still suffered outbreaks by 1966. In 1967, the Intensified Eradication Program was created with mass vaccine campaigns, innovative technologies, and full commitment by countries. By 1971, smallpox was eradicated from South America, Asia in 1975, and Africa in 1977.
The WHO has not stopped with smallpox; there are currently several initiatives to eradicate polio, Guinea worm disease, and malaria. In our lifetime, we have witnessed the fastest production and rollout of any vaccine - the COVID-19 vaccine. The average development of a vaccine takes seven years, but the COVID-19 vaccine was rolled out within a year. This sped-up timeline was not due to cutting corners, but because of preexisting coronavirus vaccine research and working on different parts of the vaccine at the same time. Because of the quick rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, some felt unsure about receiving the vaccine; misinformation on social media did not help either. While COVID-19 is still a part of our lives, the COVID-19 vaccine has greatly reduced hospitalization rates and deaths related to COVID-19.
The story of the smallpox vaccine and the eradication of smallpox is incredibly inspiring and shows the impact of science, medicine, and healthcare. Without Edward Jenner’s efforts to spread his vaccine, the physicians who encouraged their patients to take said vaccine, and the healthcare workers who carried out the vaccine to every corner of the world, our lives would look very different. With the same dedication and commitment, perhaps the world will come closer to eradicating other diseases.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog!
- Adeba Mukul
“History of Smallpox | Smallpox | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 February 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html. Accessed 26 June 2022.
Riedel, Stefan. “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination.” Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center) vol. 18,1 (2005): 21-5. doi:10.1080/08998280.2005.11928028
“Smallpox.” American Museum of Natural History, https://www.amnh.org/explore/science-topics/disease-eradication/countdown-to-zero/smallpox. Accessed 26 June 2022.
“Timeline of the COVID-19 vaccine development.” BJC HealthCare, 14 January 2021, https://www.bjc.org/Coronavirus/COVID-19-Vaccines/COVID-19-Vaccines-Articles/ArtMID/6435/ArticleID/4617/Timeline-of-the-COVID-19-vaccine-development. Accessed 26 June 2022.