The race for a vaccine against COVID19 recalls past efforts to conquer infectious diseases. Dr. Larry Brilliant learned about epidemics while working to eradicate smallpox in India in the 1970s. An estimated 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century alone. Because all cases needed to be identified in order to vaccinate those around the patient, he and scores of Indian health workers went door-to-door checking more than 100 million households. They used unorthodox methods – like parades with elephants to lure children into view. Finally, on October 16, 1975 two-year-old Rahima Banu was the last person to be diagnosed with Variola Major–the deadliest strain of the smallpox virus.
But smallpox remains the only infectious disease to have been globally extinguished. Energized by the success of the smallpox program, the global public health community moved to tackle another ancient scourge: polio, a killer virus which paralyzed more than 300,000 people that year. The new campaign surged ahead, and polio was eliminated from 118 countries in only 14 years. But there have been setbacks, largely due to the lack of public trust and today it remains active in two countries.
Today, in fighting the coronavirus, Dr. Brilliant is urging the U.S. to speed up testing, the mobilization of medical supplies and building of field hospitals, and for public health experts to think outside the box, a hallmark of the effort that eradicated smallpox.