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What Should the Victor Do with the Vanquished?

Deciding the Fate of Smallpox


Justin A. Pruneski
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Heidelberg University


Smallpox, the worst infectious disease mankind has known, represents a major triumph as the first disease to be intentionally and completely removed from the human population. Although the disease was eradicated in 1980, the variola virus remains preserved in frozen stocks stored in two secure laboratories and there has been debate about whether these remaining stocks should be retained or destroyed. This case study introduces the history, biology, and bioethics of smallpox by having students decide to retain or destroy the smallpox stocks and generate questions about what they would need to know to make a more informed decision. Students explore the historical impact of the disease and why variola was such a dangerous pathogen. The case also details our successive victories against the disease, from the practice of variolation, to Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination, culminating with the worldwide eradication effort. This leads to discussion of why smallpox was a candidate for eradication and the challenges that had to be overcome. The case is suitable for high school biology, undergraduate courses in microbiology, or any course where the history of science/medicine or bioethics is emphasized.

  • Identify why smallpox was such a dangerous pathogen.
  • Explain the process of vaccination.
  • Describe how smallpox was eradicated.
  • Determine why smallpox was a good candidate for eradication.
  • Make an informed decision as to whether the frozen stocks of variola virus should be retained or destroyed.
  • Identify other potential candidates for eradication and the challenges of current efforts.
Keywords: smallpox; eradication; variola virus; infectious disease; virus; vaccine; vaccination; variolation; pathogenesis; Jenner; World Health Organization;
Topical Area: Ethics, History of science
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Interrupted, Intimate Debate, Dilemma/Decision
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Epidemiology   Microbiology  
Date Posted: 5/18/2017
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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