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If the UN Didn't Exist, the Cold War May Have Spread Smallpox

By Nathaniel Moses, Princeton University Guest Blogger


The year is 1948 and the vaccine for smallpox has been discovered 152 years ago. Nevertheless, fifty million humans are being infected with the disease annually in over ninety countries. The threat of this ancient disease is potent enough for the newly chartered World Health Organization (WHO) to be summoned to action to create a global push to eradicate the disease. An idea previously thought impossible, the total eradication of this disease was completed by 1980 in perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the United Nations (UN). Under an unprecedented coordination spearheaded by the UN, developing and developed nations alike vaccinate citizens en masse. The Smallpox Eradication Programme uses innovative vaccinating techniques such as cheaper more widely accessible needles, and surveillance efforts on an international scale. The legacy of this early WHO team remains today in vaccination and disease outbreak work. By the time the disease was finally quashed, 100 million lives were lost that century. An untold amount more were saved.   If things had been a little different… The year is 1965 and Lyndon B. Johnson, recognizing the total lack of international coherence in fighting smallpox, has decided that he too will launch a serious American effort to fight this international killer. Under the expert guidance of Dr. Donald A Henderson, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) begins a well-funded international effort to vaccinate the globe against this disease. Some nations support the CDC effort; some embark on independent local and national campaigns to fight the disease. The campaign is a relative success for several years, with Henderson implementing innovative surveillance methods and dispensing cheaper needles to local health workers. By the end of the decade, President Johnson has made several international appearances claiming a US victory against smallpox. In Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev, newly claiming his title as General Secretary of the Communist Party, decides that the Soviet Smallpox Eradication Taskforce will proceed to handle all vaccinations in large swaths of South Asia, South America and the Middle East. Nations and local communities are forced to take sides as the CDC health workers operating across the globe instantly become a politically charged symbol of US power. Amidst this newly opened Cold War arena, vaccination rates stall and more deaths are reported in 1970 than at any point in the previous decade. The two Cold War giants blame each other as the disease resurges in countries thought conquered years ago.  By 1980 120 million have died with no end in sight. Without a strong United Nations, this second paragraph could very well have become a reality. On this 70th UN anniversary let us celebrate the apolitical, let us celebrate the death of international killers that are so horrible as to bring us together, and let us celebrate the effective leadership of UN organizations such as the World Health Organization that prove that a strong UN means a better world.

------------------- Note from the Chapter President, Donna Rosa: To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, the Northern New Jersey Chapter held a blog contest for college students in the state.  The task was to pick a significant issue from the past 70 years and imagine what might have happened if the UN didn't exist.  Nathaniel Moses of Princeton University wrote the winning piece about smallpox (which the UN helped eradicate) becoming a Cold War issue. Way to go and congrats, Nathaniel!