50. The History of Smallpox: How did we eradicate the disease and what can it teach us? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

Coronavirus is not the first disease to kill millions of people and impact our lives. Throughout history, smallpox destroyed countless lives and devastated entire communities. It was incredibly infectious and incredibly deadly. However, smallpox is also the only disease to ever be completely eradicated by humans. This episode will look at the history of that deadly disease, investigate how we got rid of the virus, and consider the lessons we can take from the time!

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VOCABULARY LIST 

To infect (v) – to pass a disease to another person 

The hospital is full of people infected with coronavirus

Precaution (n) – an action that is done to prevent something unpleasant or dangerous happening

They failed to take the necessary precautions to avoid infection

Infectious (adj) – an infectious disease is able to be passed from one person, animal, or plant to another; an infectious person is able to pass a disease from one person, animal, or plant to another

After the 21-day isolation period, survivors are no longer infectious

To devastate (v) – to destroy a place or thing completely or cause great damage 

The town was devastated by a hurricane in 1928

To eradicate (v) – to get rid of something completely or destroy something bad

Hopefully we will eradicate coronavirus soon!

To contract (v) – to catch or become ill with a disease

He contracted a rare illness while he was travelling

Immunity (n) – a situation in which you are protected against disease

The vaccination gives you immunity against the disease for up to six months

Bulletproof (adj) – cannot be corrected, altered, or modified

The lawyer made a bulletproof argument in front of the judge! 


If you’ve listened to a few of the previous episodes of this podcast, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t really talked about the ongoing pandemic. Occasionally I have mentioned the situation, but I have not recorded anything directly about Covid or its major consequences! There is a reason for this. Everyones is talking about the pandemic: every newspaper, every TV show, every podcast, every blog. I thought that listeners to this podcast would appreciate a break, or some time away, from the constant coronavirus talk! And don’t worry… this episode is not going to be all about the pandemic! Instead, I want to talk about a different disease which could potentially teach us some important lessons on how we can improve our current problems! That disease is known as smallpox.

Coronavirus is a terrible disease. It has killed over 2 million people and infected more than 100 million others. However, I think a lot of people agree that it could have been much worse. If people don’t take precautions like wearing masks and social distancing each coronavirus infection leads to about 2 or 3 other people getting infected. Fortunately, only about 0.5% of people who get infected die as a result of the disease. Although it is an awful disease, it could be a lot worse! Imagine if the disease was far more infectious so instead of infecting 2 or 3 people, every person with Covid infected 5 or 7 people. Or if it killed 30% of everyone infected. And it would take decades or centuries before we could cure or prevent the illness. This was smallpox. It was incredibly infectious and incredibly deadly!

Smallpox was around for a very long time. In fact, some people believe that some ancient Egyptian Pharaohs died of it, and the disease devastated the Americas in the early 1500s. It is hard to measure how many people died from smallpox throughout history, but in the 20th century alone it is estimated to have killed between 300 million and 500 million people. Like covid, smallpox was also a virus spread by close contact. Symptoms included fever, then rashes which would eventually develop into large lumps! The disease would kill around 30% of people who caught it, usually within two weeks. It was even deadlier for children!

If smallpox was so deadly and so infectious, what happened to the disease? Where is it now? Why do we not hear about people being infected or killed by smallpox? Well, smallpox was the first disease that humans successfully eradicated! Well, how did we eradicate such a deadly disease? To start with, it was known for a long time that people who’d survived smallpox didn’t get sick again. Then, in 1796 an English doctor called Edward Jenner showed that contracting cowpox — a related but much milder virus — also gave immunity against smallpox. This is the basic idea behind the original vaccines. If you get a milder version of the disease, you are protected from the more serious version! Luckily, rather than having to make this kind of vaccine using modern science, we could just use cowpox!

Although the vaccine was discovered at the beginning of the 19th century it took over a hundred years to completely eradicate smallpox! Vaccinations were made compulsory in much of Europe in the early 19th century, and by the year 1900 smallpox was no longer a major problem in rich countries. For example,  in the 1800s, about 1 in 13 deaths in London were caused by smallpox, but by 1900, smallpox caused only about 1 percent of deaths. However, it was not until the 1950s that global eradication became a possibility! The World Health Organisation was founded in 1948 and took control of organising a global vaccination program!

It was incredibly important to vaccinate everyone. This is a challenge we are facing today with coronavirus! As long as billions of people remain unvaccinated, there’s no bulletproof way to keep anywhere in the world disease-free. Although the USA and Northern Europe were largely free of smallpox for most of the twentieth century, it was reintroduced many times by travellers from Asia, Africa, and South America. The goal was to vaccinate everyone, so that the virus could be destroyed forever. And they succeeded!

In 1975, the last major case of smallpox was recorded in Bangladesh. In 1977, the last minor case of smallpox was recorded in Somalia. Doctors tracked down and vaccinated every potential contact of the cases; none of them contracted the disease. Over the next few years, scientists and doctors searched for any other cases. There were none. Two years later, in 1979, the World Health Organization declared victory over smallpox! Since then, there has only been one further outbreak caused by a mistake in a British laboratory. There has been no smallpox in the real word!

Final Thought

I believe eradicating smallpox is one of the greatest achievements of humanity. There were so many challenges, and so many setbacks, but the scientists and doctors kept trying and eventually succeeded. This success gives us hope that other diseases can also be eradicated. The disease polio, for example, is now only present in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although Covid is a different and complicated challenge, the history of smallpox gives us hope that it too can be eradicated!

What can we learn from the eradication of smallpox? The first lesson is the smallpox eradication took a lot of effort and a well-funded, well-supported public health system! Rich countries need to support poor countries, and organisations like the WHO need to be strong and supported. Another lesson is that once the pandemic is over, we need to work hard to stop it ever coming back. We need to protect and keep vaccinating as many people as possible. The history of the fight against smallpox proves that we’re capable of doing this.


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