How Smallpox Became the First Disease to Be Eradicated

NOTE: There is a picture showing a boy with smallpox. In this picture, the boy is covered with bumps. If this bothers you in any way, please skip past the section called “A Brief History of Smallpox”. The picture is located under the sentence - “Hemorrhagic — severe, infected mostly adults”.

On May 8th, 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox, an infectious disease was successfully eradicated, meaning fully eliminated from our planet.

A Brief History of Smallpox

Smallpox is an acute contagious disease, as a result of the variola virus. Whilst the origin date is not known, some believe that it has been around since the Egyptian Era (at least 3000 years ago!!) by identifying similar disease characteristics on mummies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, traces of smallpox were found on Pharoah Ramses V. (Image Courtesy: World Health Organization)
  • Modified - more mild version, infected those who had already been exposed to the virus
  • Flat/Malignant - rare, infected mostly children
  • Hemorrhagic - severe, infected mostly adults
Boy with pustules all over his body (Image Courtesy: Public Health Image Library of the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention)

Global Reaction

Killing +300 million people, smallpox quickly spread across the globe.

A graph showing the number of reported smallpox cases in 1952 (Image Courtesy: World Health Organization)

The Eureka Moment

However, in 1798, Edward Jenner, an English physician discovered the vaccinia virus (cowpox) which would be used to control smallpox.

A portrait of Edward Jenner (Image Courtesy: The Jenner Institute)
  • Identify Close Contacts - these people would be tested for symptoms, positive testers would be sent to healthcare facilities
  • Vaccination - the close contacts would receive the smallpox vaccine
  • Monitoring Period - those who received the vaccine would be monitored for 14 - 18 days, those who didn’t wish to receive the vaccine would be monitored for 18 days


In recent years, a newer version of the vaccine has been produced to substitute cell substrates for animal skin. As well, other versions of the vaccine included a 2nd generation vaccine using the same smallpox vaccine strain and a 3rd generation vaccine that is safer for those with dermatitis. However, these vaccines have yet to be used so the current effectiveness is unknown.

About the Writer

Hi everyone! My name is Alysha Selvarajah and I am a 15 y/o with a passion for solving global issues and emerging technologies. Currently, I am highly interested in viruses, cellular agriculture, space, and philosophy.

biology & neuroscience