Have a bad day? Didn’t get the pumpkin spice latte that you ordered? Someone say something mean to you on Facebook? Well, at least you didn’t get smallpox. And you can thank the global smallpox eradication efforts that resulted in the last natural case of smallpox occurring in 1977 and the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring smallpox eradicated in 1980. But new findings in Siberia, Russia, raise concerns that smallpox could actually return.
On August 19, a major driving force behind the smallpox eradication program passed away at 87 years of age: Donald Ainslie (otherwise known as D.A.) Henderson. After serving as Chief of the Smallpox Eradication Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Henderson served as Director of the WHO’s global smallpox eradication campaign from 1966 to 1977. Henderson coordinated thousands of doctors and other health care workers across multiple continents around the world to track smallpox, strategically administer the smallpox vaccine (since vaccinating everyone was often impractical), and ensure that efforts were moving towards the goal of wiping out the disease.
The success of the smallpox eradication program is evidenced by the fact that many people today don’t even remember how awful smallpox was. Caused by the Variola major virus, smallpox killed a third of people infected and over 300 million people in the 20th century alone. Even when people survived the disease, they often suffered blindness and disfigurement from the blisters caused by the disease. For five centuries, smallpox plagued the world until a massive endeavor that involved thousands and thousands of people, starting with the discovery of a smallpox vaccine in 1796 by Edward Jenner, continuing with the WHO agreeing in 1958 with the Soviet Union proposal to attempt global eradication, further continuing with a specific resolution in 1966 to end smallpox in ten years, and ending with the last known naturally occurring case in Merka Town, Somalia.
It is easy to forget how difficult a job this was. Even though the Cold War was raging on, the efforts required the United States and Soviet Union and their respective allies to cooperate. Many countries had broken health care systems and political strife. Henderson had to skillfully navigate through these as well as overt wars and massive amounts of bureaucracies to keep the program moving towards its targets. Such public health leadership required a combination of scientific expertise, leadership, deft negotiating skills and tremendous dedication.
For his smallpox eradication efforts, Henderson received many honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Thailand’s Prince Mahidol Award for Public Health, the Order of the Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Republic of China (Taiwan), the National Medal of Science, the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal and the Japan Prize, as well as honorary degrees from 17 universities and special awards from 19 countries. After his work with smallpox was done, he served as Dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health from 1977 to 1990 and subsequently advised multiple U.S. presidents in various leadership roles.
Dr. Michael J. Klag, current Dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called Henderson, “a giant in public health”, described smallpox eradication as “one of the greatest public health achievements in history,” and indicated that “D.A. was a force of nature who, until relatively recently, seemed invulnerable. Public health has lost a hero, and we have lost a great friend and colleague.”
If you need further proof of how massive an achievement smallpox eradication was, be careful what you wish for, because there are concerns that smallpox could make a comeback. With global warming (yes, yes, yes, it exists), locations such as in Siberia that have been previously covered in ice are now melting. The Siberia Times reports that the melting is now exposing animal and human corpses that were previously packed in ice. Some of these corpses contained anthrax that has then infected at least 24 people, who had to be hospitalized in Salekhard, situated at the Arctic Circle. Besides being the name of a heavy metal group, anthrax is a potentially lethal infectious disease pathogen that can be be used for bioterrorism. Siberian scientists worry that the same thing could happen with smallpox.
Indeed, the same Siberian region experienced a major smallpox epidemic in the 1890s, resulting in 40% of one town’s population dying and hundreds of corpses being buried along the Kolyma River. This year, the region has experienced its warmest summer on record, melting the previously ensconced burial grounds. (If you still don’t believe global warming exists, please visit these Siberian burial grounds.) Could smallpox virus be surviving in these locations? Does this sound like a combination of The Thing and a zombie apocalypse movie?
Even scarier, smallpox eradication meant that people stopped smallpox vaccination and forgot about the disease…meaning less research, less funding and less attention for the disease. In the many years after smallpox eradication, Henderson did warn of the dangers of smallpox returning, especially if terrorists could get their hands on smallpox samples that still exist in highly guarded laboratories. If smallpox were to come back, it could run rampant through the world’s population that is not protected against and does not know how to deal with smallpox. It would be like wolves running through a population of sheep. Or Gangnam Style through a population who have never heard K-Pop (Korean pop). If you really think everyone takes epidemic control seriously, just look at how “quickly” people are responding to the Zika epidemic. Nowadays, the response to a Justin Bieber tweet seems quicker than to an infectious disease threat.
Dr. Henderson was a key advocate for smallpox and other epidemic control long after smallpox apparently “disappeared” from the Earth. Let’s not forget his important accomplishments and messages…because if everyone forgets, the world may not take the appropriate steps to prevent smallpox from returning. Smallpox returning could result in blindness, terrible disfigurement and death for millions or even billions. Now enjoy your pumpkin spice latte.
This article was written by Bruce Y. Lee from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.