Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 12:58 UK

Statue unveiled in Geneva in honour of Edward Jenner

By Matthew Hill
Health Correspondent, BBC West

WHO statue in Geneva
The grouping of statues mark the 30th anniversary of smallpox eradication

The efforts of a man credited with saving more lives than any other in human history have been honoured by the World Health Organisation.

International delegates have gathered in Geneva for the 63rd World Health Assembly for the unveiling of a bronze grouping of statues marking the 30th anniversary of smallpox eradication.

The figures are of a vaccinator kneeling, holding a child's arm in one hand and in the other arm the needle is ready to inject the arm of the child.

But one subject weighing on their minds is whether the remaining stockpiles of smallpox should be destroyed.

The worldwide immunisation programme all happened because in 1796 a young GP from Berkeley in Gloucestershire made a discovery that changed the world.

Jenner had insight a century ahead of his time that immunization could be used to eradicate infectious diseases.
Prof Adam Finn, University of Bristol

Edward Jenner deliberately infected a young boy with cow pox, preventing him from getting the most deadly disease of the time - smallpox.

At this time smallpox was killing one in four people through a horrifying death.

Jenner had heard from country folklore that cow pox, a disease milkmaids caught by touching infected cows, protected them against smallpox.

He was widely ridiculed - his critics claimed it was ungodly to inject someone with material from a diseased animal.

But the risk he took led to international vaccination that spread almost as fast as smallpox. However, it was not until 1980 that the disease was finally eradicated across the world.

Facial scarring

Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and who specialises in vaccination, said: "Jenner showed us that disease prevention by vaccination was possible.

"He also had insight a century ahead of his time that immunization could be used to eradicate infectious diseases."

Smallpox killed an estimated 2.7 million people as recently as 1967 and left those who survived with severe facial scarring that often caused stigmatization and social discrimination.

Dr Jean Roy was among the original group involved with mass vaccination in West Africa in 1966.

In just six months his mobile team had immunised a million people.

Dr Roy said that if eradication had not been achieved in the late 1970s there could have been a significant problem with using the vaccine with the rise of HIV.

Smallpox killed an estimated 2.7 million people as recently as 1967

The retired public health doctor said: "A year after smallpox was eradicated, a new infectious disease was first identified - Aids.

"In 1984, a military recruit in the US was vaccinated with smallpox vaccine.

"He was HIV positive and his vaccination caused a generalized vaccine infection that was the Aids defining event, and within the following six months he died from Aids.

"We now understand that we would not be able to safely use the smallpox vaccine where HIV prevalence is high - and that we took advantage of a window of opportunity to eradicate smallpox that we did not know existed and before it closed."

In 2011 the World Health Assembly will be considering whether the remaining stockpiles of the smallpox virus in the USA and Russia should be destroyed.

Virus retained

Some experts say it is necessary to keep stocks in order to develop new and better vaccines and anti-viral treatments.

The fear that the virus could get into the wrong hands and be used as a biological weapon has led many scientists to call for further research in order to develop new vaccines and anti-virals.

But an adviser to the Obama administration, who was a leading figure in the smallpox eradication campaign, disagrees.

Donald Ainslie Henderson said: "My view is quite unchanged since 1994 when the WHO Expert Committee made the decision to recommend destruction of the virus."

He agreed with this decision, but at the last minute it was insisted the virus had to be retained, he said.

The WHO is proud of the global effort that led to the eradication of smallpox, but the job remains unfinished.

And to many experts, destroying the last remaining would prove the most fitting tribute to Jenner.

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