WHO commemorates smallpox eradication

May 14, 2020

On May 8, 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly officially declared: ‘The world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.’ The declaration marked the end of a disease that had plagued humanity for at least 3,000 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 (WHO), that involved thousands of health workers around the world to administer half a billion vaccinations to stamp out smallpox. The US $300 million price-tag to eradicate smallpox saves the world well over US $ 1 billion every year since 1980.

Speaking at a virtual event hosted at WHO-HQ, involving key players in the eradication effort, WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity’s victory over smallpox is a reminder of what is possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat.”

Tedros highlighted that smallpox eradication also offers hope for efforts to eliminate other infectious diseases, including polio, which is now endemic in just two countries. To date, 187 countries, territories and areas have been certified free of Guinea worm disease, with seven more to go. And the fight against malaria has so far resulted in 38 countries and territories certified as malaria-free. In the case of Tuberculosis (TB), 57 countries and territories with low TB incidence are on track to reach TB elimination.

At the event, Tedros unveiled a commemorative postal stamp to recognize the global solidarity that drove the initiative and honor the efforts of health workers who ensured its success. The stamp, developed by the United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA), in collaboration with WHO, signifies what national unity and global solidary can achieve. Numerous countries, such as Guinea, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Togo, and others issued smallpox stamps to show support for and raise awareness about WHO’s Intensified Smallpox Eradication Program launched in 1967.

Following smallpox eradication, WHO and UNICEF launched the Expanded Program on Immunization, under which 85 percent of the world’s children are vaccinated and protected from debilitating diseases. With the potential of a COVID-19 vaccine ahead, ensuring sufficient supplies and reaching people in hard to reach places is a high priority. Addressing vaccine hesitancy poses a significant challenge to stop the virus. Access to accurate public health information and education is critical to ensure that the public has the facts to keep themselves and others safe.

To permanently commemorate the eradication of smallpox and the lessons learned on a global scale, rather than every 10-years, WHO is calling museums, exhibition companies, designers, curators and associations to develop an immersive, interactive and educational exhibition on smallpox and its relevance for COVID-19 and global health security. The exhibition, which will be unveiled later this year, will promote a better understanding of public health, and empower people to keep informed and safe during a pandemic.

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