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Asia Marks 30 Years since World Declared Free of Smallpox

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Some of the key health workers who eradicated smallpox in Asia have re-united to commemorate 30 years of freedom from the incurable disease which was a scourge on humanity for many centuries.

Asian medical officers, physicians and epidemiologists gathered at the World Health Organization's regional headquarters to mark the three decades since smallpox was declared vanquished. Those in the room were deemed "world health warriors" who isolated the remaining few cases in the 1970s and creating a ring of immunization around them.

WHO's regional director, Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang, told them they achieved a significant historical accomplishment.

"We gather here today to reaffirm the first unequivocal and total victory of a public health program," he said.  "The victory over a major cause of human suffering and death is of the greatest achievements of public health during the 20th century."

An American epidemiologist played a key role in developing the eradication strategy for the incurable and disfiguring disease. Dr. William Foege, who later became the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States, says it took more than science to beat smallpox. Putting aside cultural and ideological difference was key and that is an approach, he says, that can benefit humanity in other ways.

"This does not have to be a world of plagues, disastrous governments, conflicts and uncontrolled health risks," he said.  "It is possible to plan a rational future. And smallpox eradication is a constant reminder that we should settle for nothing less."

The last known naturally occurring case of the more deadly strain of smallpox, Variola major, was detected in the offshore island district of Bhola, in Bangladesh in 1975.  Rahima Banu Begum was less than two years old. She attended the commemoration Friday in New Delhi, briefly speaking at the event and posing for photographs with the medical officers who personally confronted the last smallpox cases in Asia.

She tells VOA News the disease continues to haunt her.

The mother of four recalls being ostracized in her village. When she married at age 18 her in-laws did not like her because she had suffered from smallpox. She begins crying as she says people continue to treat her badly because of this.

The World Health Organization began an intensive eradication program in 1967 against the disease, which was also a major cause of blindness. It targeted four endemic areas: sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Indonesian archipelago and Brazil.

In India and neighboring countries, health personnel eventually went house to house to detect smallpox and offered rewards to villagers who reported new cases.

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