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Event Report - 200 million lives saved: Smallpox eradication 40 years on

Posted on 9 December 2019

In November 2019, the Centre for Global Health Histories commemorated the 40-year anniversary of the global eradication of smallpox. The seminar was one of nine that the World Health Organisation's Regional Office for Europe, the University of York, and the University of Exeter ran as part of a Culture and Health webinar series.

Dr Namrata Ganneri and Mr John Wickett led the seminar with rich and distinctive presentations. Dr Ganneri, who is a Commonwealth-Rutherford Fellow in the History Department at the University of York and Assistant Professor of SNDT College of Arts & SCB College of Commerce and Science for Women in Mumbai, described India’s own smallpox eradication efforts in the decade preceding the WHO's global campaign and how it informed WHO’s strategy. Mr Wickett, who was a consultant with WHO and led much of the campaign’s logistics, offered personal anecdotes on his work at the time, as well as his thoughts on what can be learned for future global health initiatives.

Dr Ganneri started off the seminar outlining India’s campaign (1958-1967), which was the largest in the world at the time. She described how, as planning for global eradication developed in the early 1960s, Indian health authorities helped define WHO’s eradication strategy. This included aiming for total vaccination coverage, as lower goals had not achieved much in India; collecting comprehensive information on households to evaluate and improve the campaign’s efficiency; and referring to India’s pilot projects and published materials. Dr Ganneri also described India’s leading research on smallpox before the global campaign. The state of Madras in particular was known for its infectious disease studies and multinational collaborations. It succeeded in significantly reducing smallpox during the national campaign and was acknowledged by WHO. 

Dr Ganneri ended her presentation by emphasising the importance of studying national histories as well as global histories. She encouraged researchers to ensure their methodology took into account alternative sources such oral interviews, grey literature, private papers, and local literature to develop critical and comprehensive global health scholarship.

Mr Wickett began his presentation by explaining that the central strategy for WHO’s global campaign was surveillance and containment of smallpox cases, which relied on functional and efficient transportation. This included land rovers, helicopters, boats, camels, and motorcycles. Coordinating all of this was not always straightforward. He was constantly faced with challenges such as acquiring extra land rovers when outbreaks erupted, or training physicians to manage expenses for maintaining their vehicles. Much of his work involved negotiating pricing, including for multimillion-dollar helicopters. Mr Wickett remembers the extensive work that went into Somalia at the end of the campaign. The country was at war but Wickett and his colleagues were able to launch an emergency relief effort. He recalls that in 27 days, they had sourced seven land rovers, a Canadian Hercules military aircraft, and $250,000 of funding from Sweden, which led finally to the eradication of the last case of smallpox in the world. 

Mr Wickett ended his talk with two lessons for the future. He said that WHO, despite not having extensive funding, should be the central coordinator of other agencies’ activities and of multisectoral funding. He also highlighted the large gap between the expertise of these agencies and the capacities of ministries of health. This needs to be balanced, he said, to ensure fruitful collaborations in the future.

There were some engaging questions to Dr Ganneri and Mr Wickett from the audience present at the auditorium and also from those who joined our livestream that further enabled the speakers to elaborate on their personal and academic experiences.

A video of the talks and the discussion that followed can be found here

The Centre for Global Health Histories is extremely grateful to Dr Ganneri and Mr Wickett for the seminar and for helping us to mark this special occasion. Our seminars are made possible by the Wellcome Trust and we remain extremely grateful for its support.


Event report by Alexandra Bradbury (MA, Medical History and Humanities, University of York).