[National Museum of Health and Medicine, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons]

December 8, 1979: Humanity Claims Victory Over One Of Its Greatest Enemies

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The eradication of smallpox stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of public health. Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by the variola virus, and it had plagued humanity for centuries. Efforts to combat smallpox date back to ancient China and India, where a form of inoculation known as variolation was practiced. However, the true turning point in the fight against smallpox came with the development of the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner in 1796. Jenner’s groundbreaking work paved the way for future advancements in vaccination.

In the mid-20th century, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global campaign to eradicate smallpox. The strategy employed was mass vaccination, with a focus on identifying and isolating cases to prevent the spread of the virus. The effort faced numerous challenges, including logistical issues in reaching remote and underserved populations, political obstacles in some regions, and the need to coordinate efforts on a global scale.

The smallpox eradication campaign reached its pinnacle in 1977 when the last natural case of smallpox occurred in Somalia.

On December 9, 1979, the WHO convened the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication. After an exhaustive review of the evidence and surveillance data from around the world, the commission declared that smallpox had been eradicated. The certification marked the first and only time in history that a human disease had been intentionally eradicated, showcasing the tremendous impact of global collaboration in public health.

The certification of smallpox eradication had profound implications for the field of public health. It demonstrated that with coordinated international efforts, even a highly contagious and deadly disease could be eliminated. The success of the smallpox eradication campaign also paved the way for future endeavors, inspiring confidence in the feasibility of eradicating other infectious diseases. December 9, 1979, remains a historic milestone, symbolizing the triumph of science, vaccination, and global cooperation over a formidable and ancient foe.

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