A Peace Corps volunteer vaccinates a child against smallpox in Bolivia in 1964. The World Health Organization (WHO) began a worldwide campaign to eradicate the dreaded disease in 1958—and reached its goal in 1979.
Photograph by David Boyer, National Geographic

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  • On December 9, 1979, scientists announced the official eradication of smallpox. As of winter 2014, smallpox remains the only disease to have been successfully driven to extinction.
    Smallpox was one of the most feared and deadly diseases in human history. The painful and sometimes disfiguring disease had a fatality rate of about 30%. Smallpox was a very contagious disease—some victims contracted it simply by breathing the air around an infected person.
    Eradicating smallpox was a massive effort. There is no cure for the disease, and the vaccination process is dangerous, and sometimes deadly. The World Health Organization (WHO) began the worldwide smallpox-eradication campaign in 1958, and doctors, nurses, and health officials worked tirelessly to locate every victim. Victims and patients who came into contact with an infected person had to be vaccinated within four days of exposure.
    Today, the smallpox virus (variola) exists only in two laboratories: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    announce Verb

    to proclaim or make known publicly.

    campaign Noun

    activities designed to achieve a social, political, or military goal.

    contagious Adjective capable of being transmitted by contact with an infected person or object.
    disease Noun

    harmful condition of a body part or organ.

    eradication Noun

    total destruction.

    exposure Noun

    availability of knowledge about something.

    extinction Noun

    process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

    fatality Noun

    a death.

    infect Verb

    to contaminate with a disease or disease-causing organism.

    locate Verb

    to find or identify a place.

    massive Adjective

    very large or heavy.

    smallpox Noun

    very contagious, often fatal disease wiped out with vaccination programs.

    vaccination Noun

    innoculation with a vaccine, or modified microorganism, to prevent disease.

    virus Noun

    pathogenic agent that lives and multiplies in a living cell.

    World Health Organization (WHO) Noun

    United Nations agency responsible for health.