9 December 1979: smallpox virus eradicated

On this day in 1969, the Global Commission for Certification of Smallpox Eradication reported that the deadly disease had finally been wiped from the face of the earth.

For thousands of years, smallpox was the scourge of humanity. In the 20th century alone, it is estimated to have killed 300 million people. Once infected, there was no effective treatment, and there was a one in three chance of dying.

The oldest evidence of smallpox is from the 12th century BC in the tomb of Rameses V. From Egypt, the disease spread along trade routes to India, then to China. By the sixth century it had reached Japan. It didn't appear in Europe until the 11th and 12th centuries.

Like many infectious diseases, smallpox was unknown in the Americas until Europeans arrived. But once it was introduced, it devastated the indigenous people.

“Variolation” was an early attempt at vaccination practised in China. Dried smallpox scab powder was inhaled, causing a mild form of the disease. But still, it had a death rate of up to 3%. And it had the added disadvantage of being capable of spreading a smallpox epidemic of its own.

The practice was brought to Britain in 1721 by Lady Mary Montagu, wife of the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who had successfully inoculated her son while in Constantinople. With smallpox killing some 400,000 people in Europe every year, inoculation became very popular, and was even taken up by the royal family. Unfortunately, George III's young sons Octavius and Alfred were two of the 3% who succumbed to the disease.

In 1796, Edward Jenner discovered a more effective vaccine derived from the related cowpox virus, using eight-year-old James Phipps as a test subject. He published his findings in 1798.

It wasn't until 1966, with some two million people dying of the disease every year, that the World Health Organisation embarked on a worldwide eradication programme. The last case of smallpox in the wild was recorded in Somalia in 1977. And the last ever case was in Birmingham in 1978, when a lab technician mysteriously contracted the virus and died.

And so, on this day in 1979, the Global Commission for Certification of Smallpox Eradication reported from Geneva that the disease had been eradicated. The World Health Organisation accepted their conclusions on 8 May 1980. The total cost of the programme was estimated at US$300m. But the saving to the global economy is estimated at over $1bn a year.

 

Recommended

What sardines can teach investors about today's markets
Investment strategy

What sardines can teach investors about today's markets

A California tale of “eating sardines” and “trading sardines” can help us divide investments into speculative and real, says Merryn Somerset Webb. Som…
26 May 2022
Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust has fallen hard. But is now the time to buy?
Investment trusts

Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust has fallen hard. But is now the time to buy?

After a spectacular couple of decades, the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust has fallen by almost 45% so far this year. Rupert Hargreaves asks if no…
26 May 2022
Is it time to pick up growth stock bargains yet?
Investment strategy

Is it time to pick up growth stock bargains yet?

If you’re thinking of picking up some bargains from the tech stock crash, beware – there are still plenty of “growth traps” out there. John Stepek exp…
26 May 2022
A fund that should give good returns from investing in good deeds
Share tips

A fund that should give good returns from investing in good deeds

Schroders BSC Social Impact Trust has made a solid start and looks more attractive than it did at launch, says Max King.
26 May 2022

Most Popular

The world’s hottest housing markets are faltering – is the UK next?
House prices

The world’s hottest housing markets are faltering – is the UK next?

As interest rates rise, house prices in the world’s most overpriced markets are starting to fall. The UK’s turn will come, says John Stepek. But will …
23 May 2022
The Federal Reserve wants markets to fall – here’s what that means for investors
Stockmarkets

The Federal Reserve wants markets to fall – here’s what that means for investors

The Federal Reserve’s primary mandate is to keep inflation down, and lower asset prices help with that. So, asks Dominic Frisby – just how low will st…
25 May 2022
Should you be worried about energy windfall tax proposals?
Energy

Should you be worried about energy windfall tax proposals?

Calls have been growing for a windfall tax on UK oil and gas producers. It's a popular idea, but is it a good one? And what does it mean for investors…
24 May 2022