The United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) in collaboration with WHO issue a stamp in the denomination of CHF 1,70, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox. The stamp was unveiled virtually on 8 May by the WHO Director-General during a commemorative event in Geneva, signifies what national unity and global solidary can achieve.
Until it was wiped out, smallpox had plagued humanity for at least 3,000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone. The world got rid of smallpox thanks to an incredible demonstration of global solidarity, and because it had a safe and effective vaccine. Solidarity plus science equaled solution! The successful smallpox eradication programme yielded vital knowledge and tools for the field of disease surveillance, the benefits of vaccination and the importance of health promotion in fighting other diseases. It also laid the foundation for stronger national immunization programmes worldwide, underpinning the establishment of primary health care in many countries and creating momentum toward Universal Health Coverage.
Stewart Simonson, Assistant Director-General at the WHO Office at the UN, was the Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness for the US Department of Health and Human Services during the post 9/11 era. At that time, he was heavily involved in the development of the second-generation smallpox vaccine, ACAM2000. He worked very closely on this project with the late D.A. Henderson, who led the WHO Smallpox Eradication Program. “Eradication of Smallpox is the greatest accomplishment of any UN agency, of any multilateral organization, ever. And it happened here. At WHO.” He pointed out that WHO’s role in smallpox eradication leaves two legacies; the eradication of the first, and only, infectious disease of humans; and the beginning of the Expanded Programme on Immunization, a child vaccination programme, under which 80% of the world’s children are vaccinated and protected from debilitating diseases”.
There are many lessons to learn from the eradication of smallpox that can help fight the COVID-19 pandemic today and prepare for future pandemics.