Commemorating the 30th anniversary of smallpox eradication
Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization
Dr Mahler, Dr Henderson, Mr Roy, colleagues in public health, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honour to welcome this statue to such a prominent place on the WHO grounds. It will remind staff and visitors alike of a truly remarkable success story with permanent gains for health in every corner of the world.
I am likewise honoured by the presence of people who played such a key role in this success story, Dr Mahler, Dr Henderson, and many others.
Leadership at WHO was important, but an achievement of this scale ultimately depended on tens of thousands of dedicated workers who literally crisscrossed this entire earth, by jeep, donkey, and fishing boats, on foot in jungle and desert journeys, from nomadic tribes in remote mountain areas to pavement dwellers in the scorching heat of Asia’s slums.
When the intensified eradication programme was launched, no one knew exactly what needed to be done, how progress would evolve, or even if the initiative would succeed. And there were indeed many near misses and setbacks.
The history of smallpox and its eradication has been written, and public health continues to benefit from the many lessons learned. Success has been attributed to a strong research component, an emphasis on epidemiology and surveillance, and the flexibility to adapt to new findings and change course when needed.
The strategy of ring vaccination emerged and was validated, vastly simplifying operational and logistic demands. The bifurcated needle was invented, and some like to argue that the war against smallpox was eventually won by a modified sewing needle.
Smallpox fighters had to contend with war zones, vast population displacements, religious and cultural beliefs, fetishes, and traditional healers with their tin boxes of smallpox scabs.
And yet despite the incredible odds, one of history’s longest chains of virus transmission, dating back at least 3,000 years, was broken in a small harbour on the Indian Ocean more than 30 years ago.
By definition, the eradication of a disease requires cooperation from every single country in the world. The history of smallpox eradication is also a story about the quiet collaboration of the two superpowers during some of the hottest years of the Cold War.
This statue stands as a reminder of the significance of such an achievement, and of how resources available to WHO can be vastly magnified when the entire world unites behind a humanitarian cause.
It commemorates a time of great idealism that attracted talent and inspired commitment and personal sacrifice. Above all, it stands as a reminder of the power of international health cooperation to do great and lasting good.