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  • Smallpox: The Death of a Disease (Henderson)

    Posted on 16th September 2014 by Giulia Fabris in

    One of the successes of global public health has been the eradication of smallpox. Read Salenna Elliot’s review of the book Smallpox: The Death of a Disease by D. A. Henderson and then browse more Books and Films here.

    Smallpox is the only infectious disease of humans that has ever been successfully eradicated from the planet. In Smallpox: The Death of a Disease, D.A. Henderson, the man who lead the WHO campaign, tells the story of this extraordinary public health achievement. 

    Smallpox was a hideous disease characterised by systemic symptoms followed by the appearance of hundreds to thousands of painful pustular pocks which covered the face, body and limbs. Of those infected with the more severe form, around one third died. Survivors were left with scars and sometimes blindness. At the beginning of the campaign in 1967, it was estimated that there were approximately 10-15 million cases and 2 million deaths per year across 43 countries.

    The author and his small team encountered formidable challenges, not least of which was significant resistance from within the WHO itself. Global politics in the Cold War era, natural disasters, lack of resources, religious and cultural barriers, conflicts and refugees all threatened to derail the programme on various occasions and yet incredibly, the last case of naturally transmitted smallpox was recorded in 1977. Henderson and his team had achieved their goal of eradication in only eleven years.

    Many of the obstacles described will be familiar to those working in global health, who will be entertained by some of the creative solutions devised to overcome them, and inspired by the incredible diplomacy and dedication of key players at all levels of the eradication effort.

    Interestingly, the author has reservations that successful eradication of other infectious diseases can be achieved. He argues that smallpox was much better suited for eradication and yet even that programme ‘barely succeeded’. Instead, he recommends that resources be directed towards control programmes. Such a view will no doubt generate controversy at a time when several diseases including polio and Guinea worm are targets of eradication efforts.

    This is an enthralling account of a truly remarkable public health success story.