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On December 9, 1979, a global commission of scientists confirmed the eradication of a 3,000-year-old killer.

Lethal, incurable, and highly transmissible, smallpox was one of the most terrifying diseases humanity ever faced. Caused by the ๐˜๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ฐ๐˜ญ๐˜ข ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ซ๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ and ๐˜๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ฐ๐˜ญ๐˜ข ๐˜ฎ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ viruses, smallpox claimed the lives of over 300 million people in the 20th century. Passed on from person to person, it caused high fever, fatigue, rashes, blindness, and even death. The disease killed nearly a third of everyone infected; those who did manage to survive were left disfigured and full of blisters on their skin.

Today, society barely remembers the horrors of smallpoxโ€”a testament to the overall effectiveness of the global vaccination campaign that wiped it off the face of the planet. The last confirmed natural case came from Somalia in 1977, and the last known smallpox death happened in Birmingham, England in 1978.

Despite its eradication, the fight against smallpox isn’t completely over. A small handful of ๐˜๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ฐ๐˜ญ๐˜ข samples remain in two high-security laboratories, for research purposes: the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Moscow, Russia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. However, a number of experts are lobbying for the destruction of the samples, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

In September 2019, discussions regarding the fate of the samples began anew, forty years after smallpox’s eradication. A gas explosion took place in the Moscow laboratory; fortunately, the incident did not compromise any of the samples. Nevertheless, it raised questions about containment risks, and understandably so. In an age of vaccine rejection, the last thing the world needs is for a deadly disease that has been gone for decades to rear its blistered head once more.

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  • https://ourworldindata.org/smallpox
  • https://www.who.int/health-topics/smallpox
  • https://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/faq/en/
  • https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/09/19/762013515/russian-lab-explosion-raises-question-should-smallpox-virus-be-kept-or-destroyed
  • https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2016/08/28/smallpox-could-return-years-after-eradication/#2c87f2ce32bf

Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco

Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.