50 years ago, scientists debated the necessity of a smallpox vaccine

Excerpt from the January 31, 1970 issue of Science News

smallpox vaccination

Smallpox killed up to 500 million people before it was declared globally eradicated in 1980. Efforts to weaponize the smallpox virus have led scientists to rethink vaccination strategies to keep people safe.

Roger Smith/Library of Congress

Vaccine controversy, Science News, January 31, 1970

In the early 1950s, when smallpox was declared officially to have been wiped out in the United States, specialists in infectious diseases began to argue whether the risks of [smallpox] vaccination finally outweighed the benefits…. Today, many specialists hold that vaccination against smallpox is no longer justified in this country.


Routine smallpox vaccinations in the United States ended by 1972 and globally by 1980, when the disease was declared eradicated. But the world isn’t totally safe from smallpox. Russian and U.S. labs keep samples of the disease-causing virus for research, and weaponized versions may exist.

In 2003, the U.S. government pushed to restart vaccinations for health workers and first responders as a precaution against potential bioterrorist attacks. That effort failed, partly because people feared the possibility of health complications from the vaccine. But U.S. officials have stockpiled smallpox vaccines, along with the first smallpox treatment, which was approved for use in 2018 (SN: 5/26/18, p. 10).

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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