DO YOU HAVE A SMALLPOX VACCINATION SCAR on your upper arm? I do. My nieces don’t. Why not? Because it worked.
On May 8, 1980, the United Nations’ World Health Assembly “solemnly declare[d] that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.” That’s why my nieces don’t have that little scar on their arms—the disease has been eradicated worldwide. It worked! My vaccination, and yours, and the vaccination of millions of other people, worked. Smallpox is no more.
Why do I bring this up? To remind us that the world knows how to stop disease. The world knows what it means to be set free from epidemic diseases that disrupt and even destroy people’s lives.
Do you remember “childhood diseases”? We used to expect every kid to catch measles, mumps, chickenpox, and German measles. I did. Did you? These wildly contagious diseases were often only inconveniences to the young patients (what do you mean, I can’t go outside and play with my friends?), who usually recovered with no lingering aftereffects. Still, they could lead to frightening complications or even death.
Speaking of frightening, you might ask an older friend how her parents acted during the polio outbreaks of the early 1950s. No one knew then how people—mostly previously healthy children—caught the disease or why some patients recovered, some were left with lifelong disabilities, and some died. (I recently read a fascinating book that came out a few years back: Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky.)
Now, thanks be to God and medical science, those “childhood diseases” are nearly unheard of in much of the world. Polio is almost completely eradicated—fewer than 1,500 cases were reported worldwide in 2020.
The brilliant researchers who developed the vaccines will always be honored and even loved (ask those older friends how their parents felt about Dr. Jonas Salk). Still, all their brilliance would have gone for naught if people all over the world hadn’t accepted that vaccines work and acted accordingly.
Think of all those parents dragging all those kids to all those doctors for all those polio shots. Just think of all those shots in all those arms all over the world for all those years! The first vaccination for smallpox was in 1796, and the last known natural case of the disease in the world was reported in 1977. The polio vaccine was licensed in the United States in 1955, and the last known natural case in the United States was in 1979. Polio will surely be stamped out worldwide before much longer.
And that gives me hope that the day will come when the world is set free from other dangerous diseases, too, like malaria and covid-19. I believe that day will come, as surely as I believe that medical science is one of the tools God uses to heal God’s beloved creation. And we can help. We can all help bring that happy day closer.
We know how. All we have to do is do it.
Audrey Novak Riley is director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA.
Free the world from deadly disease
One way we can help set the world free from deadly disease is to support the work of stopping malaria through our church’s own ELCA World Hunger program. Here’s how.
Make out your check or your congregational unit’s check to Women of the ELCA, and write “Malaria Work in ELCA World Hunger” on the memo line. Then mail it to:
Women of the ELCA
c/o ELCA Gift Processing
P.O. Box 1809
Merrifield VA 22116-8009
Every cent of your gift will go to malaria work through ELCA World Hunger. Thank you.