The first disease eradicated (destroyed) by humans is smallpox, which is caused by the variola virus that can spread from one person to another through the air. One of the most feared diseases in the world, smallpox killed millions when epidemics (widespread outbreaks) ravaged Africa, Asia, and Europe. Many of the survivors were left blind and badly scarred, but having had the disease once, the victim could not catch it again. When explorers visited North and South America, they brought the smallpox virus with them. Many Native Americans died because they had no resistance to the disease. In 1796 English doctor Edward Jenner (1749–1823) noted that dairy-maids who had had cowpox, a disease similar to smallpox but less deadly, did not catch smallpox. So Jenner took material from a cowpox sore on a milkmaid's hand and put it on a scratch on the arm of an eight-year-old boy, Phipps. Later, when Phipps was exposed to smallpox, he did not catch it. In 1801 Jenner predicted that eventually smallpox could be wiped out through vaccination (the technique of introducing a substance into the body in order to produce immunity to a disease) with the cowpox virus. Smallpox must have a human host to survive and does not sicken animals, so universal vaccination would give the variola virus no place to live.
People in many countries used Jenner's vaccine. In the 1800s, many countries passed laws requiring people to be vaccinated. By the 1940s, smallpox was eliminated in Europe and North America. Upon its formation by the United Nations (an international peace-keeping organization) in 1946, the World Health Organization set out to eradicate smallpox worldwide through large-scale vaccination programs. These programs succeeded. The last naturally occurring case of smallpox happened in October 1977 in Somalia, Africa. Two years later, when no subsequent cases of smallpox were documented, health officials declared the disease to be eradicated. It had taken decades and $330,000,000 to wipe out smallpox. In the late 1990s, health officials and researchers debated whether or not to destroy the last saved samples of the smallpox virus, which are held in carefully guarded laboratories.
Further Information: "Building on Success." World Health. March, 1998, p. 10; Centers for Disease Control. Smallpox. [Online] Available http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/plaginfo.htm, November 6, 2000; World Health Organization. Smallpox Eradication: A Global First. [Online] Available http://www.who.int/archives/who50/en/smallpox.htm, November 6, 2000.