Nancy Talanian: Controlling COVID-19 versus smallpox

Published: 1/28/2022 1:01:23 PM
Modified: 1/28/2022 1:00:05 PM

In his letter, “Social restrictions and science,” Andrew Larkin suggests there is a one-size-fits-all “science of epidemiology” that does not require social restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 because such restrictions weren’t needed to stop smallpox very eventually.

In fact, Dr. Donald Henderson, whose work to eradicate smallpox Larkin cites as proof, explained why smallpox was easier to control than other diseases such as SARS. Importantly, the article Larkin attributes to Henderson (“How a Free Society Deals with Pandemics”) was penned by Edward Peter Stringham and published on the Future of Freedom Foundation’s website in 2020, four years after Henderson’s death.

Stringham’s Libertarian piece interprets a 2006 article by four doctors, of whom D.A. Henderson was the fourth, entitled “Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza.” Stringham and Larkin are wrong to suggest that the article or Henderson’s work to end smallpox defines how societies should manage COVID-19 or all future pandemics.

First, people ill with smallpox and capable of spreading the disease were easily identified without the need for testing, and they self-isolated because they were too sick to travel. In contrast, people infected with COVID-19 are often asymptomatic, which has led to “super-spreader events” such as cruises, flights, church services, weddings, and parties too numerous to count.

Second, after centuries of development, there was a single-shot smallpox vaccine that provided lifelong immunity. Henderson and doctors around the world stopped smallpox’s spread by vaccinating those exposed to people with the disease. We don’t have such a vaccine for COVID-19 yet; social restrictions, masking, vaccinations, and boosters are currently our only means of controlling the virus’s spread and mutations.

Finally, Henderson started eradicating smallpox in 1966, and the disease was finally wiped out by the early 1980s. Between 300 million and 500 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century alone. In the case of COVID-19, we will never know how many more of us would have died or been sickened by the disease had we not heeded the recommendations of today’s epidemiologists based on their ongoing research.

Nancy Talanian

West Whately


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