In October 1977, in the country of Somalia, a young man named Ali Maow Maalin contracted the world's last case of naturally occurring smallpox. By not passing the disease to any other person, he broke the chain of transmission that had existed from the very first case thousands of years earlier. The global eradication of smallpox was certified in 1979 and endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 1980.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of making smallpox history. The lasting contributions of the smallpox vaccination campaign remind us that we already have the tools and the knowledge to eradicate polio and measles and dramatically reduce other vaccine preventable diseases.
The World Health Organization estimates that 300 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century, more than died in wars, and now it is gone.
We must continue to use the lessons learned. These improvements don’t happen by chance—they rely on a desire to know the truth, they always involve coalitions, and they require rapid communications to everyone so that the truth can guide actions. Success against smallpox laid the foundation for today’s polio eradication efforts—an unprecedented level of international cooperation led to many scientific, technical, and logistical advances.
I recently had the opportunity to talk about the people who made smallpox eradication possible. I tried to illuminate their experiences in creating and executing smallpox eradication programs. Many have joined the throng of global health workers of the past who established the groundwork for our efforts today. Others are part of the global health cohort of the Gates Foundation and its many partners who will work in this area in the future.
Individuals working together were able to eradicate one disease already. I believe we can and must do it again.
Democritus didn’t know it, but he described global health workers 2500 years ago, calling them wise because their souls are at home, not in one country, but in the whole world.
And global health workers, in turn, as in the book Cutting for Stone, redefine home, not as where you are from, but rather, where you are needed. Thank you for what you do.