Lessons from a past pandemic

Do you know of anyone in your family who had smallpox? It would have been a long time ago. The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the US was in 1949. The last person in the world to get smallpox was a 3-year-old Bangladeshi child in 1975. Smallpox was a terrible disease that killed 3 out of every 10 people who got it, and left survivors scarred and sometimes blind. It spread from person to person through close contact with others. People spread the virus when they coughed or sneezed and droplets from their nose or mouth spread to other people. (Sound familiar?)

Image of puzzle pieces
Image of puzzle pieces

Smallpox was the first disease we had a vaccine for, and the first disease to be eradicated from the earth. A lot of what we have learned about public health, we learned during the many years of international effort to eradicate smallpox. Some of these lessons are relevant to COVID-19. Here are two big ones.

It took a vaccine.

Smallpox was allowed to “run its course” for literally thousands of years. You can see a picture of a 3000 year-old mummy with mummified smallpox blisters on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, if you’re into that kind of thing.

An effective vaccine was developed in the late 1700s, and only then could individuals be protected from smallpox. And only after almost everyone was vaccinated did the “herd immunity” provide enough protection to protect whole communities. And only after all the communities in the world were protected — by vaccinating almost everyone — did transmission stop completely.

It took so much more than a vaccine.

We had an effective vaccine for almost 200 years before smallpox was eradicated. A vaccine is not enough to prevent disease. In addition to a vaccine, eradicating smallpox took:

  • Worldwide commitment to making decisions based on science and in the interest of the public’s health.
  • Cooperation and support across political boundaries both internationally and within nations.
  • Widespread willingness to help others, even if you lived in a community that had already eliminated smallpox.
  • Adequate supplies. Early efforts were delayed by trouble finding enough vaccine.
  • Help in spreading good information. The smallpox teams were often working in areas of the world where suspicion of foreigners makes good survival sense and rumors and conspiracy theories are really hard to tell apart from good information. The teams worked with local leaders to help fight misinformation standing in the way of science based decision making.
  • Excellent support from community members in reporting new cases and helping to locate everyone who may have been exposed — what we know of as contact tracing.

A COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatments will be necessary for us to resume our unphysically distanced lives. But it won’t be sufficient to save lives. We will also need to continue to make decisions based on science, to work together with people we don’t always agree with, to help each other, to conserve resources, to help spread good information and challenge harmful rumors, and to participate fully in public health efforts to test more people and identify folks who have had close contact with others with COVID-19.

Practice compassion

Even before we have a vaccine or effective treatments, we can work together to prepare the road for controlling COVID-19. Support each other in reducing fear and harmful rumors by spreading the facts. Find good information at www.coronavirus.wa.gov or www.cdc.gov.

More information

Stay tuned to our blog for more information on how you can help stop the spread of COVID-19. Sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles.

Information in this blog changes rapidly. Check the state’s COVID-19 website for up-to-date and reliable info at coronavirus.wa.gov.

Answers to your questions or concerns about COVID-19 in Washington state may be found at our website. You can also contact our call center at
1–800–525–0127. Hours: 6 am-10 pm, seven days a week.

Department of Health call center: 1–800–525–0127, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m, seven days a week

Please check our website for the most up-to-date info on Washington’s response to COVID-19 at www.doh.wa.gov/coronavirus.

Public Health Connection

From the Washington State Department of Health

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