The World Health Organization commemorated the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication today, recognizing the historic moment on 9 December 1979 when the end of smallpox was confirmed to have been eradicated. Five months later, in May 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly issued its official declaration that ‘the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox’.
A bronze plaque marking the end of a scourge that had afflicted millions for thousands of years was unveiled at WHO headquarters in Geneva in the very same meeting room where, four decades earlier, the 19 members of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication certified that smallpox had been eradicated from the world.
Speaking at the event attended by country representatives, UN representatives and WHO staff who worked on smallpox, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “Today, smallpox is the only human disease ever eradicated, a testimony to what we can achieve when all nations work together.
“When it comes to epidemic disease, we have a shared responsibility and a shared destiny. With this plaque, we commemorate the heroes around the world who came together to fight smallpox and worked to keep future generations safe.”
Until it was wiped out, smallpox had plagued humanity for at least 3000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone. The last known endemic case of smallpox was reported and the outbreak promptly contained in Somalia in 1977.
The successful smallpox eradication programme yielded vital knowledge and tools for the field of disease surveillance, the benefits of ring vaccination and the importance of health promotion in fighting diseases such as poliomyelitis and the Ebola virus. It also laid the foundation for stronger national immunization programmes worldwide, underpinning the establishment of primary health care in many countries and creating momentum toward Universal Health Coverage.
Today’s commemoration kicks off a year-long campaign in which WHO and partners will mark the eradication of smallpox and raise awareness about the need to continue the fight against polio and other diseases and accelerate investments in global health security. A smallpox eradication exhibition will be unveiled at the World Health Assembly in May 2020 and is expected to travel to other events, including the United Nations General Assembly in New York.