The eradication of smallpox has been heralded as one of the greatest scientific achievements in history. However, it is possible that the story we have been presented is not entirely accurate.
The eradication of smallpox seems to be based on how many people received the smallpox vaccine, and this of course, is based on the assumption that the smallpox vaccine is extremely effective. However, there are a number of problems with this idea, the first being that the smallpox vaccine has had a troubled history plagued by failures. (No pun intended…)
There were high hopes for smallpox vaccination and variolation and these led to mandatory vaccination laws in England in 1853. In fact, compulsory vaccination with penalties for not vaccinating was not able to stop another outbreak from occurring in 1877 and another 1881. (I find it ironic that this webpage condemns objectors to vaccination while acknowledging that outbreaks continued to despite smallpox vaccination laws and affirmations from the government and health board that vaccination was effective. They offer up comments of objectors stating that they were concerned about their children’s lives and health and the infringement of their liberties as some sort of proof that opposition to vaccination is dangerous. All it proves is that these people were concerned about their freedom and their children’s health. But I digress…)
Even in the 20th century, problems with smallpox persisted despite high rates of immunization for the eradication program instituted by the World Health Organization. A quote from a scholarly paper on the history of smallpox reads: “The concept of mass immunization, originally proposed to include 80% of the population in each country to achieve herd immunity proved ineffective as herd immunity did not cease and smallpox persisted in such immunized or ostensibly over-immunized populations.” (pg.491 of document.) So while smallpox vaccination rates were high, the disease continued to persist. This does not constitute eradication.
Can a disease be eradicated? I think it worth questioning since despite all the money and pharmaceutical technology, no other diseases have been eradicated altogether. There are reports that certain diseases have been eradicated in certain areas of the world, but these have problems as well. I think polio is the perfect comparison.
Despite a massive campaign to eradicate polio, the disease has persisted. Even in countries where it has been declared eradicated, cases of Acute Flaccid Paralysis have remained high. For example, India has been declared polio-free but now has some of the highest rates of Acute Flaccid Paralysis in the world. So even if you get a disease doctors do not classify as polio, you can still suffer the same consequences. In fact, MD’s like Suzanne Humphries who have talked openly about the misconceptions surrounding vaccination point out that polio itself was merely a diagnosis for a number of different conditions that could result in paralysis. So it’s quite possible that instead of being “eradicated”, polio simply got a name change. Doctors can call a disease resulting in paralysis Acute Flaccid Paralysis and continue to laud the eradication of polio, even though the threat of death and paralysis is still there.
And India is hardly alone. Americans have had a brutal wake-up call as paralysis from so-called non-polio enteroviruses has gotten more attention. Isn’t it possible that smallpox could still be going around, but the diagnosis is just different now? We have never seen any other disease be eradicated. We are dealing with an occurrence that has not been replicated.
I think we also need to consider the historical and political context of the “eradication” of smallpox as well. At a time when vaccines seemed to be under great suspicion from lawsuits over Vaccine Acquired Paralytic Polio, deaths from the 1976 flu vaccine, and settlements for deaths from the DTP shot, the World Health Organization announced that vaccines had given mankind its greatest epidemiological achievement: defeat of a disease. In 1979, smallpox was declared eradicated from the planet. The medical and public health communities must have breathed a sigh of relief. The “eradication” of smallpox could not have happened at a more convenient time.
Update: This interview with Dr. Suzanne Humphries MD about vaccines and what really happened to polio and smallpox is excellent if you would like more information. It’s an hour and a half long, but it is well worth listening to.
Update: I have written a post about what disease eradication/elimination actually means and how it is “achieved”. It can be found here.