During a press briefing at United Nations Information Service in Geneva, the following was commemorated:

Dr. Rosamund Lewis, Head of the Smallpox Secretariat at the World Health Organization (WHO), said that 9 December had marked the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the certificate of the eradication of smallpox. The certificate had been signed by the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication, which had been made up of 19 members led by Australia.

Image/CDC/ John Noble, Jr., M.D.

Smallpox was a terrible disease that had killed 30 per cent of the people who contracted it and had caused 300 million deaths between 1900 and 1978. The first efforts to combat it had begun in 1721, when small doses of the variola virus had been placed on the arms of children who had then passed it to other children during long sea voyages. In 1796, the physician Edward Jenner had discovered that young milkmaids who caught cowpox never developed smallpox. He had then produced the first vaccine for smallpox and predicted that the disease would be eradicated.

In 1958, at the eleventh World Health Assembly, the Soviet delegation had presented a resolution proposing to eliminate smallpox. In 1967, WHO had intensified its efforts through the global eradication programme. The last naturally occurring case of the disease had been detected in Somalia in 1977. Five months after the signing of the certificate of eradication in December 1979, at the thirty-third World Health Assembly the WHO member States had declared the disease eradicated.

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The variola virus was nowadays kept in two repositories in the Russian Federation and the United States of America. At those facilities, research was ongoing to develop countermeasures and vaccines should the world ever experience a resurgence of the disease.

Some of the lessons learned from the eradication of smallpox continued to be applied today. For example, house-to-house active case search surveillance underpinned the polio eradication programme, while the use of ring vaccination of contacts was used to combat the spread of Ebola.

In 1980, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WHO had launched the concept of universal childhood immunization. The eradication of smallpox remained an incredible achievement that showed what the world could do when all nations worked together.

Responding to questions from journalists, Dr. Lewis said that smallpox was not known to have been successfully weaponized. Those countries that had attempted to weaponize it continued to be monitored under the Biological Weapons Convention. The role of WHO was to monitor the two repositories where the virus was stored and inspect them every two years. The facility in the Russian Federation had last been inspected in January 2019 and the one in the United States in May 2019.

Asked which other diseases were close to being eradicated, Dr. Lewis said that polio and guinea worm were on the brink of being eradicated. So far, no human disease other than smallpox had been eradicated. However, rinderpest, which affected cattle and had decimated livestock in many communities around the world, had recently been eradicated.