40th Anniversary Of Global Eradication Of Smallpox Holds Lessons For Overcoming COVID-19

- May 12, 2020-

On May 8 1980, the World Health Assembly confirmed the eradication of smallpox, marking the end of a disease that had plagued humanity for at least 3000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone. 

It was ended thanks to a 10-year global effort, spearheaded by the World Health Organization, that involved thousands of health workers around the world to administer half a billion vaccinations to stamp out smallpox. 

Speaking at a virtual event hosted at WHO-HQ, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus outlined what the eradication of smallpox can teach us about using basic public health solutions, science and solidarity to rise to the challenge of COVID-19.

"Many of the basic public health tools that were used successfully then are the same tools that have been used to respond to Ebola, and to COVID-19: disease surveillance, case finding, contact tracing, and mass communication campaigns to inform affected populations.” 

Smallpox eradication was only possible because of a safe and effective vaccine. With COVID-19, WHO is working to drive forward the ‘Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator’, which aims to ensure that new health technologies will be developed, manufactured and distributed equitably.

Dr Tedros noted that humanity’s victory over smallpox is a reminder of what is possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat: "The decisive factor in the victory over smallpox was global solidarity. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States of America joined forces to conquer a common enemy. They recognized that viruses do not respect nations or ideologies.”