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    The smallpox eradication story is indeed a fascinating one.

    Some things that jump out at me, in the linked article (that I didn’t already know):

    When it was agreed that the WHO would take on the smallpox initiative, the organization turned to the United States, which, under Dr. Henderson’s leadership, had already launched a smallpox-eradication program in Africa. In an oral history with the online Global Health Chronicles, Dr. Henderson recalled that the WHO director general, the Brazilian malariologist Marcelino Candau, called the U.S. surgeon general with a demand.

    “I want an American to run the program,” Candau said, “because when it goes down, when it fails, I want it to be seen that there is an American there and the U.S. is really responsible for this dreadful thing that you have launched the World Health Organization into, and the person I want is Henderson.”

    So some people in the WHO were very opposed to the effort, because…

    Many WHO officials were hesitant to embark on such an ambitious operation, fearing that a defeat would erode the organization’s credibility. Previous efforts to eliminate other diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria, had “failed spectacularly,” according to Jason Schwartz, a historian of medicine at the Yale School of Public Health.

    Hmmm. Were they right to be opposed? What differentiated the previous efforts from this one? (Or was it only a confluence of factors—luck—that led to success? And even if not—could the particular factors which ensured success this time, have been identified as such in advance, and the success confidently predicted?)

    Another thing:

    Much credit for its success went to Dr. Henderson personally.

    “He gives a sense of certainty on things,” Foege said in an interview, “and people like to follow a leader that is quite certain about what they are doing.”

    I wonder to what effect this is merely survivorship bias. How often do such leaders lead their organizations, projects, followers, into dead ends?


    The only officially sanctioned stores of the smallpox virus are held at heavily secured facilities at the CDC in Atlanta and at a Russian facility in Siberia. Some researchers contend that the samples should be preserved for use in the development of future vaccines or treatments.

    Dr. Henderson strenuously argued that the samples should be destroyed because, in his view, any amount of smallpox was too dangerous to tolerate. A side effect of the eradication program — and one of the “horrendous ironies of history,” said “Hot Zone” author Preston — is that since no one in generations has been exposed to the virus, most of the world’s population would be vulnerable to it in the event of an outbreak.

    I have seen it said (though I have no reference at hand right now) that a large part of the reason why the Soviet Union went along with the smallpox eradication project was precisely that, as a result, America (and any of the USSR’s enemies, in general) would be more vulnerable to a future outbreak, and that this would thereby greatly increase the potential effectiveness of [Soviet bio-weapons capability].

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      So two things:

      1. We really need an ‘effective altruism’ tag. (See: https://wiki.obormot.net/Lobsters/00031)

      2. It’s really striking to me how the eradication of smallpox wasn’t something that Just Happened through the inevitable march of progress, it took this guy and a small crew actively hunting it to finish off its final human hosts. This seems like an important lesson going forward if our long term outlook is to wipe diseases from the face of the earth.

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