For its historic achievement in the practical eradication of smallpox from the Earth.
Smallpox, mankind’s most feared and devastating infection, has, over the centuries, killed, blinded, and scarred countless millions, and frequently has changed the course of history itself.
The war against this deadly, contagious viral disease began in England in 1796, when Edward Jenner gave the first vaccination to an eight-year-old boy.
Today, smallpox has been wiped out in all except one country in the world, and there the disease is almost conquered.
This historic achievement—accomplished within the past ten years—involved the mobilization of personnel supported and directed by the World Health Organization, to work at the request of individual governments throughout the world. A global network was organized for surveillance, research, and laboratory capabilities. Conferences at national, regional, and grassroots levels were held to implement strategies. Dedicated health worker teams were dispatched to the most remote and inaccessible villages throughout the world, to search out and isolate cases, and to vaccinate contacts. In short, every weapon in the armament of modern science and public health services was employed in this war against an international and insidious enemy.
While surveillance must continue for the next two years to insure that the eradication of smallpox is permanent, we salute this historic milestone as one of the most brilliant accomplishments in medical history.
We hope that it will provide an example of how, with coordinated international effort, many of the other health problems that afflict mankind can be successfully attacked.
For the inspiration and unparalleled example of the dedicated workers around the world who have labored tirelessly to seek and contain, one by one, each of the thousands of smallpox outbreaks—and have now practically succeeded—this Special Albert Lasker Public Health Service Award is given.
World Health Organization
Acceptance remarks by Donald Henderson, 1976 Lasker Awards Ceremony
Not two years ago, cases of smallpox such as these from India and Bangladesh were numbered in the tens of thousands. These cases are of average severity—many were much more severe. The death rate varied from 15 to 30 percent, depending primarily on the age of the patient and his nutritional status; medical care could offer little but supportive therapy since there is no known treatment for smallpox. However, on 16 October last year, the last known case occurred in Asia—the last case of variola major, the severe form of smallpox. The patient, a three-year-old girl, Rahima Banu, lives on Bhola Island, Bangladesh.
This left then but one endemic country—Ethiopia. There, a much milder form of smallpox prevailed which caused death in only one percent of those afflicted. Beginning last autumn, resources were increasingly diverted from Asia to Ethiopia and assisted by contributions from the USA, the program was greatly intensified. Villagers in the infected areas were trained to search for cases and to vaccinate. For supervision, additional Ethiopian health officers and sanitarians were deputed to the program and the number of WHO epidemiologists was increased. Helicopters were deployed to facilitate supervision and to assist in the search for the remaining infected foci. The endemic areas steadily decreased until at last, on 9 August, Ethiopia’s last known case occurred in a three-year-old Somali nomad girl living in the southern Ethiopian desert.