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What Does it Take to Eradicate Disease?

Author: Natalia Khalatyan

Editors: Shamsia Ahmed and Shannon Tan

Artist: Tiffany Gao

As the Covid-19 virus runs rampant around the globe during the biggest pandemic of our time, scientists are working tirelessly to test and develop vaccines against it. The vaccine will prevent further spread of the virus by creating lasting immunity or resistance in vaccinated individuals. Vaccines also aid in disease eradication efforts, first being in the mid-20th century in the fight against smallpox, a highly contagious disease characterized by its distinct violent skin rash that left the majority of infected scarred or even blind (“Smallpox”). There’s no effective treatment against smallpox and about a third of sick patients died from infection with an estimate of up to 500 million deaths in the 20th century alone. Yet by 1980 the World Health Assembly declared smallpox the first disease to be eradicated, or eliminated from the human population, through intensive vaccination efforts and surveillance.

There are a few reasons that made smallpox a great candidate for eradication, unlike any disease before it. First, the vaccine was readily available unlike with the case of other diseases such as AIDS. Smallpox is also highly visible with rapid symptom onset, allowing for quick detection and tracing of at-risk individuals who may have been exposed to the virus. Humans are also the only ones who can catch and transmit smallpox, so it is unable to jump species and remain hidden in the animal population. In addition, previously infected individuals also develop lifelong immunity, similar to that ideal effect of a vaccine, and therefore cannot get re-infected with smallpox again (“History of Anti-Vaccination Movements”).