On this day in 1979, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) certified that its efforts led to the global eradication of smallpox, the only human infectious disease to date to have been completely eradicated.
This millennia-long scourge of humanity was responsible for 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone, and even in the early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases occurred worldwide annually, with a mortality rate of about 30 percent.
Like so many examples of human progress, this remarkable achievement was a product of globalization and international collaboration.
The Chinese developed the earliest recorded form of inoculation in the 16th century, and possibly as early as the 10th century. Smallpox scabs from the infected would be ground up and blown them up the noses of healthy people. They would then develop a mild form of the disease and become immune to it. While 0.5-2.0 percent would die, this was far less than the usual 20-30 percent rate of a full-blown infection.
It was not until centuries later, in 1796, that the true vaccine was developed by English physician Edward Jenner. Shortly thereafter the British and Spanish governments implemented vaccination programs both at home and in their colonies worldwide.
The first regional effort to eradicate smallpox was made in 1950 by the Pan American Health Organization founded in 1902 by the U.S. and eleven countries in the hemisphere. The campaign succeeded in wiping out the disease across the Americas in all but four countries.
The first global effort came in 1958 at the urging of Russian virologist Viktor Zhdanov, who called on member states of the WHO to act. At the time, smallpox was still killing 2 million people every year. After initial delays and failures, in 1966 an American-led international team was formed solely to eliminate smallpox, and one year later the WHO contributed $2.4 million annually to the effort, utilizing a new disease method advocated by Czech epidemiologist Karel Raška.
The WHO established a vast network of consultants who assisted countries in setting up surveillance and containment activities. Initially, vaccines were donated overwhelmingly by Russia and the U.S., but by the early 1970s, more than 80 percent of all vaccines were produced in developing countries.