Health & Medicine

Lessons from smallpox eradication

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story was originally reported by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Only one disease has ever been successfully eradicated from the earth: smallpox. In 1967, it was estimated that smallpox would cause 1.5 to 2 million deaths. "Now, in perpetuity, we not have any deaths from small pox," Dr. Walt Orenstein, Deputy Director for Immunization Programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told PRI's The Takeaway. "It was an amazing accomplishment."

At the same time, the accomplishment has never been repeated. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds Public Radio International, has been working to eradicate HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. According to Orenstein, the foundation has learned valuable lessons from the eradication of small pox.

Orenstein emphasizes the need for political will, innovation and resources as three of the keys to fighting diseases. During the fight against smallpox, world governments worked together, innovations in public health made progress possible and huge resources were devoted to the fight.

The Gates Foundation is now trying to apply those lessons to other, very different diseases. They're working with a variety of partners to scale up global efforts, and working with pre-existing efforts to understand diseases and figure out the best way to fight them.

"By knowing your disease, following it, tracking it, you can begin to adjust your strategy," Orenstein says. And hopefully, to eradicate other diseases in the near future.

"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH. More at