Lessons Learned From the Man Who Eradicated Smallpox

World Health Organization

World Health Organization

In August, we lost a giant in the field of epidemiology, a man credited with leading the war on history’s most lethal disease – smallpox. The passing of Dr. Donald A. Henderson leaves us to both appreciate his life’s work, and learn from, and apply, its lesson.

Smallpox is a distant memory for most around the world today. But in the 20th century alone, before its eradication, the disease is believed to have claimed as many as 300 million lives. Smallpox, which is caused by the variola virus, creates symptoms including raised rashes across the body, sores inside the mouth, nose and throat, high fevers and headaches. Highly contagious through face-to-face and bodily fluid contact, the fatality rate of smallpox was about 30%. Victims often died from brain inflammations or pneumonia brought on by the infection, and survivors were sometimes left blind or disfigured.

When Henderson joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1954, smallpox had been suppressed in most of the West, but was still causing major outbreaks across South America, Asia and Africa. A vaccine for smallpox had been first developed as far back as the late 1700s, but coordinated efforts for mass immunizations had only been undertaken country-by-country or in areas of outbreaks.

By the mid-1960s, calls went out from powers on both sides of the Iron Curtain for the World Health Organization to spearhead a war on smallpox, and Dr. Henderson was enlisted to lead the monumental effort. Expectations for success were low, but Henderson believed that this “Target Zero” of ridding the earth of a human-spread disease was possible with the advanced vaccines, techniques and communications newly available to his team.

The funding was often short and access to war-torn hotspots was an added challenge, but over a decade-plus of sheer will, skillful diplomacy, thoughtful research and adaptive thinking in the field, Henderson and WHO had won the war on smallpox. The last known case of wild smallpox was recorded in Somalia in 1977 and in 1980, smallpox was officially eradicated.

Today, thankfully, there is no vaccine-preventable disease that is infecting and taking lives on the scale that smallpox once did. However, that shouldn’t detract us from the lesson of Dr. Henderson’s life that total eradication of a disease can be achieved through coordinated and sustained efforts that stress the importance of immunizations. Maintaining a herd immunity must continue to be a priority.

We have highly effective vaccines for human papillomavirus (HPV), pertussis (whooping cough), measles, herpes zoster (shingles) and meningococcal disease (meningitis), and many more. What we need now is the commitment to carry on Dr. Henderson’s legacy and engage in the conversations and hard work that will relegate more diseases to history.