Pac-Man vs the pox

For me, the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man highlighted two things in particular. Firstly, I’m as rubbish at playing it now as I was in the 80s, but secondly it’s a reminder of just how far computer games have advanced in three decades. In contrast, a less publicised 30 year anniversary reminds us that some other things don’t progress as quickly as we’d like.

Smallpox leaflet

World Health Organisation leaflet about smallpox, Africa, 1970-1971 (Science Museum)

Back in May 1980, the World Health Assembly confirmed the global eradication of smallpox. Last week a statue was unveiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to celebrate the event. But 30 years on, despite continuing advances in medical knowledge, it remains the only infectious human disease eradicated by direct intervention.

Like it’s disfiguring pustules, smallpox had scarred human history. Killing tens of millions over many centuries, it’s presence is well represented in our collections.

Smallpox vaccination points

Ivory smallpox vaccination points used by Edward Jenner (Science Museum)

If Edward Jenner’s 18th century vaccine first opened to door to eradication, it took the global campaigns of the 20th century to finally get the disease under control.

Smallpox vaccination

Smallpox vaccination, Manchester Town Hall, 1962 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

After a huge international effort, the last naturally occurring cases were recorded in 1977. The final death from smallpox came the following year, bizarrely and tragically in Birmingham, after an accidental exposure at a research facility.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until 2040 for the next success. A handful of other diseases are slowly getting close to the brink. And while the original target date for eliminating the most well known of these – polio – has past, it’s possible that like smallpox, it too could soon be confined to history.

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