An American Doctor Leads the U.N. Team That Is Ending Smallpox in the World
In about four months, in some as yet unknown village in Ethiopia, a minor outbreak of smallpox will dwindle to a few cases, then to one final feverish patient. He may die or he may recover; whatever the outcome, the case will mark one of man’s greatest triumphs. It will be the last case on earth of a disease that has killed and disfigured hundreds of millions of human beings. Mankind has never before achieved such total victory over any of its virulent diseases.
For an American public health specialist, Dr. Donald Henderson, a decade of battle will be at an end. In 1966 he became head of the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication program in Geneva.
“I used to be a mad bridge player and spent a lot of time refinishing furniture,” he says wistfully. “These last years my hobby has been smallpox.”
When Henderson, 47, who was born in Lakewood, Ohio, joined W.H.O. after seven years at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, there were an estimated 10 million new cases of smallpox every year. But Henderson and his team of Russian, Iranian and Japanese personnel enlisted local medical and paramedical help in the worst-hit countries. In Bangladesh and India a bounty system was introduced that offered up to $125 to any citizen who found and reported a new case. Earlier this year Henderson was able to announce that smallpox had been eradicated in India. Bangladesh is expected to be cleared by the end of the year, W.H.O. says. The cases remaining in Ethiopia should be wiped out in 1976.
Fighting smallpox has been global war. There is evidence that it existed in Asia 3,000 years ago. By 600 A.D. it had spread to Europe, where it got its name from the thousands of tiny pockmark scars it left on victims who were fortunate enough to survive. Europeans brought it to the New World, where it decimated the Indians (settlers even used the disease as a weapon). During the first two years of the American Revolution, it caused more deaths and desertions among Continental Army soldiers than the British did.
But in 1796 an English doctor, Edward Jenner, developed a smallpox vaccine. That vaccine and later variations slowly brought the disease under control in Europe and North America. (There has not been a verified native case in the United States since 1949.) Latin America, Asia and Africa have been more difficult.
“Sometimes,” Henderson says, “people were more resistant to our campaign than to the smallpox virus. In India, we came up against the goddess of smallpox, who alone decides who gets smallpox. In some Ethiopian villages they set the most vicious dogs in the world against us, and a helicopter was demolished by a hand grenade because people thought we were religious proselytizers.”
While Henderson has made extensive use of indigenous public health workers—deploying 12,000 people in the campaign in Bangladesh alone this year—he has spent 70 percent of his days in the field too. He demonstrated the pinprick vaccination technique on himself “hundreds of times” for fearful villagers; he is probably the most thoroughly immunized man in history. There’s already talk in Geneva’s international community that Henderson might be in line for a Nobel Prize in medicine, but he scoffs at the suggestion. “This has never been a one-man show,” he says. “If ever there was a team job—not only in W.H.O. but with all the people in the national health services—it was this program.”
Henderson’s only complaint has been a lack of time for his wife, Nana, and their three children. He plans to stay with W.H.O. but as the smallpox program ends, he is in a rare position: a man whose $40,000 job is about to end—and he couldn’t be happier.