Today’s factismal: The last death due to smallpox happened thirty-six years ago.

Normally, extinction is not something that we’d celebrate. It means that something is gone forever, taking its unique genetic signature with it. For animals such as the Carolina parakeet and the Western Black Rhinoceros, it is a tragedy. But for diseases such as smallpox and rinderpest, it is a cause for celebration. That’s because smallpox infected millions of people and killed two million each year; even if you were lucky enough to survive, you’d be marked forever by the disease with scars covering much of your body.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus
(Image courtesy CDC)

Starting in 1950, a concerted effort was made to eradicate smallpox in South America. Vaccines were prepared and injected into people in every country on the continent. The success was so great that a world-wide initiative was proposed in 1958. Within a short time, smallpox was eliminated in North America (you can tell when an American was born by looking at their left shoulder; if they have a scar from the smallpox vaccination, they were born before 1965). By 1975, smallpox was only found in one small part of Africa. And two years later, it was gone from the wild.

But it still lived in laboratories. And that’s where the last victim of smallpox caught it. Janet Parker was a medical photographer documenting the work done at the University of Birmingham Medical School where she was accidentally exposed to the virus. Two weeks later, she became the last person that smallpox would claim. Ever since then, smallpox has been extinct except for two small samples kept in epidemiology labs in the US and Russia as a hedge against any future outbreaks.

Today there is a concerted effort to drive polio into extinction. This disease causes muscles to weaken and atrophy and bones to warp; in extreme cases, it can cause the diaphragm to weaken so much that the person suffocates. If you’d like to help drive this disease into extinction, then make certain that you and your family have had your vaccinations, and join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

3 thoughts on “

  1. Pingback: August 1 – Pokey Dokey | Little facts about science

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