Epidemic: ‘Eradicating Smallpox’

The Heroes Who Wiped Out a 3,000-Year-Old Virus 

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In this 1974, black and white film photograph, a doctor is standing beside two women and one young girl who are waiting to be vaccinated. He holds a jet injectorIn his hands, preparing for vaccination. Beside him and on the walls are posters that say, “Prevent Smallpox – Get Vaccinated” and show images of a mother holding a child with smallpox.
CREDIT: Santosh BASAK/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Season Two of the Epidemic Podcast Is ‘Eradicating Smallpox’ 

One of humanity’s greatest triumphs is the eradication of smallpox. Many doctors and scientists thought it was impossible to eliminate a disease that had lasted for millennia and killed nearly 1 in 3 people infected. Smallpox is the first and only human disease to be wiped out globally. Public health workers battled social stigma and local politics with fresh ideas and unwavering determination to conquer the disease’s deadliest form. This unprecedented accomplishment has important and inspiring lessons to teach about public health. 

This new eight-episode docuseries, “Eradicating Smallpox,” explores the remarkable feat and uncovers striking parallels and contrasts to recent history in the shadows of the covid-19 pandemic.  

Host, physician, and epidemiologist Céline Gounder brings decades of experience working on HIV in Brazil and South Africa, Ebola during the outbreak in Guinea, West Africa, and covid-19 in New York City at the height of the pandemic. She travels to India and Bangladesh to bring never-before-heard stories from the front lines of the battle to wipe smallpox off the face of the Earth. 

“Epidemic” launched in early 2020 and quickly became a key source of reporting on the rapidly unfolding coronavirus pandemic. The show premiered at No. 1 in health and fitness and No. 1 in medicine on the Apple Podcast charts. 

Epidemic: The Scars of Smallpox


The series finale of “Epidemic: Eradicating Smallpox” is a visit to the home of Rahima Banu, the last person with a documented case of naturally occurring variola major smallpox. When the virus was declared eradicated, she became a symbol of one of the greatest victories in global public health. What happened to Rahima Banu afterward?

Epidemic: What Good Is a Vaccine When There Is No Rice?


What good is a vaccine when there is no rice? Episode 7 of “Eradicating Smallpox” explores the barriers public health workers face in communities where people’s basic needs aren’t being met.

Epidemic: Bodies Remember What Was Done to Them


Trust is hard to build and easy to break. In Episode 6 of the “Eradicating Smallpox” podcast, meet Chandrakant Pandav, a health worker who used laughter and song to try to rebuild trust with communities harmed by India’s sometimes violent and coercive family planning campaign.

Epidemic: The Tata Way


Episode 5 of the “Eradicating Smallpox” podcast explores how a partnership between public health institutions and a huge, influential private company was key in the campaign to eliminate smallpox.

Epidemic: Speedboat Epidemiology


In Bangladesh, smallpox eradication workers went to great lengths to vaccinate even one person, sometimes traveling by speedboat, crossing rickety bamboo bridges or leech-infested paddy fields. Episode 4 of the “Eradicating Smallpox” podcast is about what it takes to bring care directly to people where they are.

Epidemic: Zero Pox!


In the early 1970s, public health workers buoyed by the motto “zero pox!” worked across India to achieve 100% vaccination against smallpox. This episode is about what happened when these zealous young people encountered hesitation.

Epidemic: Do You Know Dutta?


Who gets credit for wiping smallpox from the planet? American men have been widely recognized while the contributions of South Asian public health workers have been less celebrated. Episode 2 of the “Eradicating Smallpox” podcast tells the story of Mahendra Dutta, an Indian public health leader, whose political savvy helped usher in a transformative approach to finding and containing smallpox cases.

Epidemic: The Goddess of Smallpox


To defeat smallpox in South Asia, public health workers had to navigate the region’s layered cultural ideas about the virus. They also dreamed big. In Episode 1, host Céline Gounder wonders how the U.S. might tap into similar “moral imagination” to prepare for the next public health crisis.

Timeline: The Final Years of the Campaign to End Smallpox

KFF Health News Original

Many people working in global health thought eradicating smallpox was impossible. They were wrong. Season 2 of the Epidemic podcast, “Eradicating Smallpox,” is a journey to South Asia during the last days of variola major smallpox. Explore the timeline to learn about significant dates in the final push to end the virus.