Most people are familiar with smallpox. This deadly disease was a major pain in humanities side. During 18th-century Europe smallpox was a leading cause of death in the 18th century, killing an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year, including five reigning European monarchs. Similar problem existed all across the globe. In 1796 Edward Jenner, a doctor in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, discovered that immunity to smallpox could be produced by inoculating a person with material from a cowpox lesion. This started an effort that become an worldwide effort to remove smallpox. In 1979, after nearly two hundred years of containment and vaccination, smallpox became the first disease to be completely eradicated through human efforts.
Rinderpest is now the second.
Rinderpest was an infectious viral disease of cattle, domestic buffalo, and some species of wildlife. The disease was characterized by fever, oral erosions, diarrhea, lymphoid necrosis, and high mortality. Due to its high transmission and lethality rates, an infection could sweep across an entire area, leaving famine in its wake. For example, an outbreak in the 1890s killed 80 to 90 percent of all cattle in Southern Africa.
Similar to smallpox, eliminating rinderpest required a very specific set of conditions: a robust lab and surveillance infrastructure, an easily-delivered vaccine, and an absence of any secondary reservoir that can give the organism a refuge. (Which explains why tetanus, living in soil, could never be eradicated). It takes money, time, extraordinary numbers of people and enormous amounts of political will.
Which is why this has only happened twice. We have gotten close with others (polio being the best example), but no other successes yet. This is a testament to not just one scientist or one team, but generations of scientists working together across the globe to make this happen. Lightning has struck twice. Here’s hoping for a third, a fourth, a fifth . . .