Smallpox was eradicated in 1977 but stocks remain in laboratories in the USA and Russia. Now the World Health Organisation is to discuss whether these stocks should be destroyed.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) will this week re-open the debate surrounding the eradication of the smallpox virus. The last case of small pox was in 1977; since then it has existed only in laboratories where it has been studied in great detail ever since.
There have been many calls over the years for the remaining stocks to be destroyed and there are compelling arguments both for and against doing so.
Currently, there are two stocks of smallpox viruses in the world, both held in highly secure, secret locations; one in Russia and the other in the United States.
What is Smallpox?
From the WHO website – “Smallpox is an acute contagious disease caused by variola virus, a member of the orthopoxvirus family.”
The virus has been around for over 3000 years and is believed to have originated somewhere between India and Egypt. Smallpox is an airborne virus and is one of the most devastating diseases in the history of mankind, infecting and killing hundreds of millions of people.
Typical symptoms are fever, headache, tiredness, muscle pain and a distinctive rash. Around 30% of those infected with the disease died from it and unlike many diseases in history, smallpox was not just prevalent among the poor lower classes; in fact it has killed many world leaders in history including Queen Mary II of England, King Louis XV of France, Tsar Peter II of Russia and King Luis I of Spain. Most survivors are left with deeply scarred skin and/or blindness.
In 1798, it was discovered that strains of the cowpox virus could help to treat smallpox and work began on creating a vaccination. From 1950 to 1967 the estimated number of worldwide cases of smallpox fell from 50 million per year to around 10 million per year. In 1967 the WHO intensified their efforts to vaccinate the world and in just ten years the last naturally occurring case in the world was treated in Somalia. Global eradication was certified and endorsed by the WHO in 1980.
Should smallpox be eradicated from labs?
Although only 2 stocks of the smallpox virus are known to exist, some people fear that there may be others in existence and may somehow once again affect the population. This is one of the main arguments for the USA and Russia to hold on to their stocks – they can still be tested on to possibly create better vaccines.
However, according to DR DA Henderson who was in charge of the WHOs eradication program in the 1970s; "I think it's a very good idea to destroy....Group after group has looked at this and basically said there is no need to retain it....We have done all of the productive research that we can do.”
Over 50 strains of the virus have been fully genetically mapped and can be created in laboratory conditions if so required.
Whatever, the WHO decides this week, it may not actually change anything. Even in the unlikely case of a unanimous vote by its 193 member nations to destroy the remaining stocks, the WHO has no legal powers to enforce the decision and are therefore less likely to actually call for a vote, instead simply delaying the decision for another five or ten years. That way, they would not have to risk damaging their reputation of authority by issuing a ruling which was then ignored.
For more information on the smallpox virus visit http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/smallpox/en/