Should we once and for all eradicate smallpox?

Illustration for article titled Should we once and for all eradicate smallpox?

Well, yes of course we should destroy all smallpox. But recently the disease was spared the chop, due to US pressure on the World Health Organization. Why would we want keep this killer alive?


Smallpox was the Ebola of its time, except unlike Ebola it had a wide range. As far as anyone can tell, it originated in India three thousand years ago, and crisscrossed first the continent, then the globe over and over. It was reported to have killed thirty percent of those infected. It blinded a good percentage of the rest. In the seventeenth century, there were countries where every seventh child died of smallpox. When it hit the Americas, where the indigenous population had never been exposed to any form of the pox, it killed at an even higher rate. For some groups of people the mortality rate climbed to fifty, or even ninety percent. For some it was said to be an absolute death sentence. No one infected managed to survive.

In 1798, it was demonstrated that inoculation with the relatively mild cowpox could protect people against the disease. In the 1950s, 50 million cases per year were reported. In 1967, fifteen million were reported. For the next ten years, an intensified inoculation program was so effective that the last natural case was reported in 1977.

Scientists have retained samples of the disease, and so the 3,000 year old killer sits on shelves and in freezers. In May, the World Health Organization got together and pushed for final eradication of the last samples. The plan, however, was put off at the urging of the United States and with the support of Russia. US scientists wish to continue studying smallpox, and some thought that if bioterrorists happened on some hidden stash of the virus, the world would not be prepared to make vaccines if governments didn't have samples. Where, exactly, the bioterrorists would get the virus if not from existing and preserved vials wasn't specified. And, over the few years since the issue was last debated, there have been safer and more effective vaccines developed and preserved. For the US and Russia, that wasn't enough.

The US wanted explicit mandates to continue research and a five year stay of execution for the smallpox virus. It received three years, and no new mandates. But the virus still exists. Somewhere.

Via Science Magazine, WHO, and Early America.


Apple Tartlet

Isn't smallpox one of those vicious little diseases that can happily incubate for years in the bodies of those that died from it, and be re-released when that body or entire plague graveyard is exhumed? Or am I confusing that with something else and just spreading a little confusion?