The WHO and the UN’s postal agency have released a commemorative postage stamp on the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, with the head of the global health body expressing gratitude to a top Indian-origin UN official.
In May 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly issued its official declaration that “the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.” It was ended on the back of a 10-year WHO-spearheaded global effort that involved thousands of health workers around the world to administer half a billion vaccinations to stamp out smallpox.
Smallpox is the first and only disease to be permanently eradicated worldwide. Until it was wiped out, smallpox had plagued humanity for at least 3 000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone, that is 4 million people annually.
In 1967, WHO launched the 10‐year Intensified Smallpox Eradication Programme to concentrate on endemic countries. Efforts included surveillance, case finding, contact tracing, ring vaccination and communication campaigns to better inform affected populations. Numerous countries, such as Guinea, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Togo and others issued smallpox stamps to raise awareness about the eradication programme.
By 1973, the number of countries with smallpox had declined. The last variola major infection was recorded in Bangladesh in October 1975, and the last variola minor infection occurred two years later in Merka, Somalia on 26 October 1977. During the following two years, WHO teams searched the African continent for smallpox. No further cases were found. An unfortunate laboratory incident led to two cases in 1978, which in turn led to global efforts for additional containment.
On 9 December 1979, the members of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication signed their names to the statement that “smallpox has been eradicated from the world.” At the 33rd World Health Assembly, 8 May 1980, smallpox was officially endorsed as eradicated. The total cost of the Smallpox Eradication Programme was estimated at US$ 300 million. But the saving to the global economy is estimated at US$ 1bn a year.
“When WHO’s smallpox eradication campaign was launched in 1967, one of the ways countries raised awareness about smallpox was through postage stamps – when social media like Twitter and Facebook was not even on the horizon,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“I especially want to thank my friend Mr Atul Khare, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support, for making this commemorative stamp possible,” he said in Geneva on Friday during a virtual unveiling of the stamp.
Born in India, Khare is the Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Operational Support (DOS) and the UN Postal Administration is within the DOS Division of Administration.
“In light of these uncertain and challenging times, I must commend the creative skill and powerful visual storytelling achieved by the UN Postal Administration, especially designer of this commemorative stamp Sergio Baradat,” Khare said.
It is through these collaborative artistic projects that “we are reminded of our past hardships, but also our ability to overcome them through ingenuity, conviction, and the power of partnerships,” the top The UN said that 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 immunisation programmes worldwide, underpinning the establishment of primary health care in many countries and creating momentum toward Universal Health Coverage. The USD 300 million price-tag to eradicate the virus has saved the world well over USD 1 billion every year since 1980, the UN said.