Oct 25, 2002 (CIDRAP News) The world's last naturally acquired case of smallpox occurred almost exactly 25 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes in today's issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The smallpox case occurred in the Merca District of Somalia on Oct 26, 1977, the CDC says. Less than 3 years later, in May 1980, the World Health Organization declared the world free of naturally occurring smallpox.
As the CDC observes, the anniversary comes amid preparations to defend the nation against the possible use of smallpox virus by terrorists. Stocks of the virus are held by the CDC and at one government site in Russia. The World Health Organization has repeatedly delayed final destruction of the virus on the ground that the stocks are needed for research on vaccines and treatments in view of the risk that terrorists could reintroduce the disease.
Commenting on the anniversary, the CDC said, "The eradication of a disease was an unprecedented accomplishment" that desmonstrated the benefits of international cooperation in public health. "Improvements made in international vaccination programs, global disease surveillance, and public health logistics systems that were results of the smallpox eradication program continue today." Efforts to eradicate two other diseases, poliomyelitis and dracunculiasis (guinea worm disease), are continuing, the report says.
The last case of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949, and the risk of the disease was considered low enough to justify stopping routine vaccination for the American public in 1971, the report says. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended against routine immunization of healthcare workers in 1976.
The ACIP last week recommended that certain staff members in all US hospitals be vaccinated against smallpox, but how soon that may happen is uncertain. As the CDC report notes, federal health officials are currently reviewing whether healthcare workers and the public should be vaccinated in the absence of any smallpox cases. "A final U.S. policy on smallpox vaccination is pending," the report says.
CDC. Notice to readers: 25th anniversary of the last case of naturally acquired smallpox. MMWR 2002(Oct 25);51(42):952