Friday, May 15, 2009


Lately I have been reading about smallpox, which was supposedly eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, surviving only as samples in two freezers, one at the CDC and one in Siberia. However, no one at all believes that these samples have not been cultured and migrated, although that same "no one" seems unable to prove it. Richard Preston covers all this, plus anthrax, in his 2002 book Demon In the Freezer, which I have only now gotten around to reading.

Preston can write. He is the author of the best-selling The Hot Zone, about the 1989 outbreak of Ebola in a Virginia monkey house. When WHO decided to go after smallpox on a global basis, it encountered enormous difficulties. Here is Preston on a key organizer, the eccentric Lawrence Brilliant, in India:

"He began to organize vaccination campaigns in villages. He would go into a village where there was smallpox, rent an elephant, and ride through the village telling people in Hindi that they should get vaccinated. People didn't want to be vaccinated. They felt that smallpox was an emanation of the goddess of smallpox, Shitala Ma, and that therefore the disease was part of the sacred order of the world...Brilliant haunted the temples of Shitala Ma, because inside those temples people could be found praying and dying. He would look up the local leaders, take them to a temple, chant in Sanskrit with them, and then ask for their help in dealing with smallpox....'Worship the goddess and take the vaccine,' he told them."

WHO kept at it: renting elephants, running jeeps (500 for India), hiring people (150,000 people at the height of the program), making house calls (two billion in a year and a half), soliciting funds (the Lions Club and the Rotary Club International contributed hugely). And they succeeded. It's an amazing story, and a wonderful book. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Back in 1987, a defector said, in debriefing, Soviet biologists were trying to modify the smallpox culture in Russian hands to create an unstoppable Doomsday virus.

Assume he was right:
I don't think even the Soviet slavemasters were ruthless enough to imagine deploying such a weapon. It come back to bite you. After all, not even Hitler used poison gas.

But then, only the B-52s and Polaris submarines kept the Kremlin gang bosses in their cage.