[20 years without smallpox].Epidemiol Mikrobiol Imunol 2000; 49(3):95-102EM
It is 20 years since the 33rd World Health Assembly (WHA) declared that "worldwide eradication of smallpox" was achieved. This was the outcome of many years intensive work of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its member countries. In 1958 the WHA adopted the recommendation that WHO should initiate the eradication of smallpox on a worldwide scale. In 1967 the eradication activities in hitherto endemic countries became more intense. Smallpox affected 31 countries and 15 countries recorded from occasional cases. Every year more than 10 million people contracted the disease and two million of them died. A ten-year limit for the eradication was set. Gradually smallpox were eradicated in South America, then in Asia and last in Africa where the last case of endemic smallpox was recorded in 1977 in Somalia. WHO ensured international collaboration, close coordination of activities and mobilization of financial, personal and material resources. It ensured also that tested methods were fully applied in the affected countries regardless of their political, religious and cultural differences. In the eradication activities participated hundreds of thousands of local and 700 health professionals from abroad, incl. 20 Czechoslovak epidemiologists. The worldwide costs of eradication amounted to some 300 million dollars, i.e. some 23 million per year. The most important contribution of the eradication of smallpox was in addition to the termination of human suffering, worldwide financial savings estimated to 1-2 billion US dollars per year. These saved personal and financial resources could be used for other important health projects. The eradication of variola was defined as eradication of clinical forms of smallpox not as the final eradication of the variola virus. The importance of laboratories keeping the variola virus increased steeply at the time when clinical cases of smallpox were eradicated. From the beginning of the eighties WHO made an effort to reduce their number to a minimum. Since 1984 strains of variola are officially kept only in two centres collaborating with WHO. The Organization suggested destruction of the kept viruses in 1987, i.e. ten years after the eradication of smallpox. Unfortunately some political and scientific circles did not agree with this intention. Even recommendations to destroy the virus in 1993 and again in 1999 were not accepted. In the nineties fear of bio-terrorism and secret modernization of biological weapons influenced some member countries to change their opinion on the intended destruction of the virus. Despite this in May 1999 the WHA adopted a resolution that the final destruction of all variola strains is the objective of all member countries of WHO and recommended to postpone the destruction of the virus to the year 2002. The reason for postponement is current research of new antiviral preparations and better vaccines. There is again hope that all that will be left of the variola virus will be magnetic signals on computer diskettes.