The history of smallpox and the origins of vaccines

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Smal­lpox was one of the worst dis­eases in hu­man his­tory. It kil­led an es­ti­mated 300 mil­lion peo­ple or more in the 20th cen­tury alone; only tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and malaria have been more deadly. Its vic­tims were of­ten chil­dren, even in­fants.

It is also, among dis­eases, hu­man­ity’s great­est triumph: the only hu­man dis­ease we have com­pletely erad­i­cated, with zero nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring cases re­ported wor­ld­wide, even in the most re­mote lo­ca­tions and the poor­est coun­tries, for over forty years.

Along the way, it led to fierce re­li­gious and poli­ti­cal de­bates, some of the ear­liest clini­cal tri­als and quan­ti­ta­tive epi­demiol­ogy, and the first vac­cines.

This is the story of smal­l­pox, and how we kil­led it.

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