During a recent Outbreak News This Week interview with Blue Marble Health author, Dr. Peter Hotez, I asked the infectious disease expert for his thoughts on the life and accomplishments of the eradicator of smallpox, D. A. Henderson, who died Aug. 19 at the age of 87.
“D.A. was an amazing person, he was a friend and colleague and when I first moved to Washington he came to visit me from Baltimore, that was back in 2000, and you’re right, he was a giant of medical science and he was a giant of a person as well.
“He can be gentle when he needs to be and he can be fierce when he’s trying to look out for the poorest people in the world. His book on smallpox eradication is probably the definite story of how he did that and how he was a field marshal in battle eradicating smallpox and I consider it one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century never really getting the recognition that it deserved.
“For instance, he was never awarded the Nobel Prize, either in Medicine or Peace, which I think he was entitled to.
“If you induce a back of the envelope calculations given the hundreds of thousands of people who died every year of smallpox prior to when the campaign was started and looking at it now that its gone, D.A.’s work has saved literally tens of millions of lives. You can argue that he’s may of saved more lives than any other single human being in human history.
“That’s the magnitude of his accomplishment.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Smallpox outbreaks have occurred from time to time for thousands of years, but the disease is now eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program. The last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949. The last naturally occurring case in the world was in Somalia in 1977. After the disease was eliminated from the world, routine vaccination against smallpox among the general public was stopped because it was no longer necessary for prevention.
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