Conquering Smallpox

In the 20th century, a monster killed some 300 million to 500 million human beings. I want you to think about the absurd hugeness of that number – 300 million ants of average size would weigh 1,650 pounds, as much as an adult Angus cow. The monster that caused all this death and suffering was not huge and intimidating. It had no vicious claws or slavering jaws – it didn’t need them. It was the tiny virus Variola major, the source of deadly smallpox.

Once you were infected, there was nothing you could do. There was no treatment whatsoever, only the grim knowledge that you had about 1 chance in 3 of dying horribly. Even if you survived, you could easily be left physically scarred for life and often even blind. On the other hand, if you survived you’d never be at risk of catching the disease again. This one fact is what led to the monster’s defeat.

You see, the human immune system is a truly incredible thing. Once it had fought off the Variola virus, it knew how to beat it, and would never forget. Since the 6th century some people had realized this, and deliberately infected themselves with milder versions of smallpox in the hope of creating immunity. It wasn’t until 1769 that this remarkable technique started making a serious difference, thanks to the work of one Edward Jenner.

Jenner had realized that after getting cowpox, a related but much weaker disease, people never caught smallpox. Cowpox was significantly less dangerous than the other forms of weakened smallpox that had been used to grant immunity in the past, and more likely to actually cause an infection and therefore immunity. Slowly, this new concept of a “vaccine” spread to the mainstream, saving countless lives.

Smallpox still existed, though, and continued to ruin lives, with some 2 million dead every year. Lots of people either couldn’t get vaccinated, or didn’t want to, often fearing the process. That changed in 1967, when the World Health Organization began a massive vaccination campaign. By 1977, only a single case of smallpox was reported, the world over. In 1978, there were only two cases, caused by the virus escaping a lab instead of by natural infection. There have been no cases since.

To myself and many others, the conquering of smallpox is by far one of the greatest achievements of humanity to date. It is a story many of us hold dear, as inspiration and proof that humans can, with their own ingenuity and hard work, create a better world. This is the ideal result of technology, an unequivocal good. And yet, at every step, the general public resisted out of ignorance and fear of change.

What lesson can we learn from this? I’d say the most important thing is how crucial it is to educate people about changes that can help them. Smallpox didn’t have to last as long as it did, and didn’t have to be as devastating as was while it existed. If people had understood the good that vaccination could do them, generations could have gone without scars. So I’m asking you: reach out to someone and teach them about the advancements humanity is making. It could save lives.

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