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ARCHIVE: Eradication of smallpox 40 years ago inspires public health officials now during COVID-19

COVID-19 will have health, social and economic impacts until it can be eradicated

First posted on Mother’s Day ~ Sunday May 10, 2020 | BC & NATIONAL

Reposted August 11, 2022, in the context that humanity is now seeing further resurgence of disease — including monkeypox (associated with smallpox) and now polio (a case reported in the USA recently).

by Mary Brooke, B.Sc. ~ Island Social Trends

As the 21st-century world is grapples with the treacherous impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus, this past week public health professionals around the world celebrated the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, calling that a legacy of hope.

On May 8, 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly officially declared: ‘The world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.’ The declaration marked the end of a disease that had plagued humanity for at least 3,000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone, it was stated in a news release on May 8, 2020 from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Dr Bonnie Henry, May 9 2020
Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry addressed media on May 9, 2020 in Victoria.

In BC, Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry said in a media briefing that for her it was a special day as well — evidence of victory in her profession. She would have heard WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus say that day: “As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity’s victory over smallpox is a reminder of what is possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat.”

Smallpox was ultimately ended thanks to a 10-year global effort spearheaded by WHO, that involved thousands of health workers around the world to administer half a billion vaccinations to stamp out smallpox.

Mother's Day, mask, flowers
COVID-19 seasonal mask, adorned for Mother’s Day 2020.

On Mother’s Day in 2020 we can take this as a measure of hope that our children will hopefully soon live in a world that is also free of COVID-19. This year we greet our children remotely, or if we’re lucky, in person at a distance of 6 feet, or up close wearing a mask. Children born into the world at this time will grow up seeing a different sort of human interaction through their young eyes. These next few years will impact the emotional and social behaviours of an entire generation, in addition to the society-wide economic impacts which will drill-down upon us all.

And as we have seen in the last few months, it will take a full-on rallying cry from governments, economies and people everywhere to be attending to this fight. It won’t be easy to remain emotionally and socially engaged with the battle of a ‘state of war’ with this virus, and it won’t be cheap.

MapleLine Business Centre, printing, west shore

We’ve already seen the billions of dollars rolling out the door from the federal and provincial governments across Canada to fund a wide range of sectors and impacts. There is a solid recognition and response to the economic impacts, and the social and mental health aspects of that as well. What inspires hope is that in Canada the funding for research and development of a vaccine and treatments was readily deployed, and we can further be glad that we have such an educated society and well-equipped science community that is up for the task of moving forward with this.

In the end, the savings will also be huge. WHO says that the $300 million USD price-tag to eradicate smallpox has saved the world over $1 billion USD every year since 1980. The parallel with tremendous growth in global wealth since the early 1980s does not go unnoticed.

Now another virulent disease arrives, and all those gains in wealth are being wiped out. Sure, the stock markets are happy with investments in technology right now, but everyone else is bleeding — and if there’s nothing else we aren’t fully sure about about COVID-19 right now, it’s that the pandemic is a great equalizer.

Smallpox was a devastating disease for 3,000 years, finally eliminated in 1980 thanks to medical science and public health resolve.

“The world got rid of smallpox thanks to an incredible demonstration of global solidarity, and because it had a safe and effective vaccine. Solidarity plus science equalled solution!,” said Dr Tedros in his message on Friday.

One out of every three people who got smallpox died. The global spread of smallpox can be traced to the growth and spread of civilizations, exploration, and expanding trade routes over the centuries.


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Island Social Trends has been publishing socioeconomic news insights since 2008 (first as MapleLine Magazine 2008-2010, then Sooke Voice News 2011-2013, then West Shore Voice News 2014-2020), launching fully online at islandsocialtrends.ca in mid-2020.

Founding editor and publisher for that entire series of publications is Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., Cert PR. Her B.Sc. is in nutrition science (second major in sociology). She holds the McGeachy Prize in Journalism from the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan. The focus of earning her Public Relations certificate was on mass media including film.

Mary Brooke, editor, West Shore Voice News
Mary P Brooke, Editor and Publisher, Island Social Trends.

During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms Brooke covered the news of the disease (including immunization programs and economic recovery) on a daily basis. COVID-19 and public health news coverage continues.