40 Years in a Post-Smallpox World

As the massive, wearisome effort to stop COVID-19 presses on, it’s worth pausing to remember the successful eradication of another highly infective and deadly virus: smallpox. 

Today, the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of the World Health Assembly’s 1980 declaration that smallpox had been eradicated throughout the world, notes Karen Kruse Thomas, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health historian.

By no means novel, smallpox was the biggest killer in world history, causing an estimated 400 million cumulative deaths over 3,000 years—300 million in the 20th century alone.

The means of smallpox’s eradication—meticulous surveillance, careful contact tracing, targeted vaccinations, and international cooperation—are worth remembering. These are precisely the tools that need to be sharpened and used to end the coronavirus pandemic, Thomas writes.

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