One of the great advances in human history occurred on Thursday May 8, 1980. The World Health Organisation formally announced that smallpox, the great scourge of humanity since the Middle Ages, was eradicated.
“The world and all its people have won freedom from smallpox, which was the most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest times, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake,” the organisation said.
Smallpox killed millions through the ages, sent survivors blind and helped bring about the fall of the Roman Empire and the decimation of the Aztecs and the Incas by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. An outbreak in Sydney in 1789 devastated First Nations peoples across Australia.
So the WHO breakthrough, after a global 10-year scientific effort, was unequivocally good news. But there was a footnote. With smallpox eradicated, WHO advised that mass-scale smallpox vaccination was no longer necessary.
Which brings us, 40 years later, to monkeypox. The virus, related to smallpox, is endemic in 10 African countries. It was a rarity in Europe and North America until this year. It has been spreading over the northern summer predominately through gay men during the Pride and Circuit Party season. Now it has reached Australia.
The monkeypox virus is, as the Smithsonian magazine says, “mired in misconception”. But its effects can be horrific. The pain can be 10 out of 10 if the lesions and ulcers spread internally through the mouth and anus and create abscesses.
Monkeypox may spread through skin-to-skin contact, respiratory droplets or contact with contaminated items or surfaces. It is not classified as a sexually transmitted disease, but can be spread when people are having sex due to close skin-to-skin contact. Researchers are trying to determine if it can spread via semen.
Health authorities are worried. The virus has been spreading locally with a few mystery cases. Numbers were small, but leapt suddenly in August.