Four years ago, on Oct. 30, 1997, the Centers for Disease Control threw a party. "Come celebrate this important public health achievement," the announcement read: "The global eradication of smallpox is a true triumph of public health."
The celebration included talks by CDC staffers on "the successful Global Smallpox Eradication." Titles included "Smallpox Eradication: From Omega to Alpha" and "WHO [the World Health Organization] in Action." A quotation from Horace Ogden's CDC and the Smallpox Crusade received prominent display: "Smallpox eradication is a constant source of refreshment for the public health movement ... for all who believe that people of every country and culture can work effectively together to advance the human condition."
In one sense the CDC was right to celebrate. Smallpox for centuries had afflicted millions of people each year. As late as 1967, nearly 2 million people were dying of the disease each year around the world, with millions more disfigured and sometimes blinded.
Listing only a few prominent victims shows smallpox's worldwide killing capacity through the ages. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 a.d., Muslim caliph Abbul al-Abbas al-Saffah ("the blood shedder") in 754, and Aztec emperor Ciutláhuac in 1520 were victims. So were Emperor Fu-lin of China in 1661, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, King Nagassi of Ethiopia in 1700, Tsar Peter II of Russia in 1730, and King Louis XV of France in 1774.
If you skipped over the hard-to-pronounce Ciutláhuac in the list above, you missed one indication of how historically monumental smallpox has been. Smallpox was unknown in the New World until Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors introduced it. The disease devastated both the Aztecs and the Incas and was instrumental in the downfall of their empires. What is now Mexico had about 25 million residents when the Spanish arrived in 1518, and a century later the number was 1.6 million.
So eradicating smallpox would certainly advance "the human condition." But, sadly, there is something about that condition which the CDC did not understand. Something that God revealed in chapter three of Genesis when he told Adam, after the original sin, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you."
The thorns and thistles will always be with us, until Christ returns. World Health Organization's website was still proclaiming last month that "The best known example of WHO's accomplishments is the eradication of smallpox." That appears to have been spoken too soon, in a world where sinful man will twist all accomplishments and turn good into evil.
Because we thought that man's ingenuity had eliminated one very savage thorn, we stopped inoculating against smallpox, and now we are more vulnerable to it than at any time over the past two centuries.
Now, what British historian Macaulay called "the most terrible of all the ministers of death" may soon be ministering at a neighborhood near you. WHO and CDC leaders who thought there would be no more weeping showed knowledge of physical illness but ignorance of spiritual sickness.
None of this should point us toward despair. First, as of the end of October we had not seen any outbreak. Maybe, just maybe, terrorists don't have this bio-weapon in their arsenals. Every day that goes by without a report of smallpox or some other contagious disease unloosed is a day for rejoicing. Even though government leaders have known of this danger for some time-see WORLD's June 2 cover story on smallpox-we do not now have enough smallpox vaccine to go around. A year from now, we will.
Second, smallpox is not contagious until the patient is already feeling terrible and showing signs of the illness; if we are alert, we should not be taken by surprise. The virus is not so easy to disseminate that it will outrun a quickly imposed quarantine. Of course, stopping the spread quickly will require some hard ethical choices that I hope we do not have to make.
Third, maybe the terrorists are just evil and not crazy. Smallpox unloosed upon the world is likely to spread not only in America but through the whole world, including the Middle East. Smallpox knows no boundaries, and terrorists willing to kill themselves may not be willing to kill mothers, children, and other residents of their own countries. The doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" helped to prevent nuclear warfare; maybe the possibility of mutual devastation will keep smallpox bottled up.
Finally, and most important, our hope is in the Lord. He preserved us through decades of nuclear standoff, and we should daily pray that He will have mercy on us now.