The last smallpox survivor

In October 1977, Ali Maow Maalin was the last person to contract naturally occurring smallpox. He died thirty six years later while coordinating a polio vaccination drive.

The eradication of smallpox was one of the 20th century’s great achievements. The world went from millions of cases every year in the middle of the century down to zero cases in 1978 thanks to a huge vaccination push that covered the globe.

The virus that caused smallpox came in two strains: one deadly and the other less so. The deadlier strain was eradicated first. The final natural case was a three-year-old Bangladeshi girl named Rahima Banu in 1975. She survived, by the way, and is still alive today. But the lesser strain persisted for a couple of years after, primarily in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

It was very difficult to contain smallpox in the Horn of Africa because many of the residents were nomadic – making the disease fast to spread and the people hard to vaccinate. The World Health Authority (WHO) descended on Somalia in 1977 in order to wipe out the virus once and for all.

One of the thousands of vaccinators and healthcare workers they employed was Ali Maow Maalin. He caught smallpox while escorting some infected people to an isolation camp. It’s not entirely certain whether he was unvaccinated, or if the vaccine simply hadn’t worked in his case, but it didn’t really matter either way. Ali Maow Maalin was probably the last person on the planet with smallpox.

WHO isolated Maalin, and then identified every one of his possible contacts and vaccinated or monitored them too. This containment process was a complete success; two years later WHO declared smallpox officially extinct.

As for Maalin, he made a complete recovery. In 2008 he went to work as a vaccinator and vaccination coordinator as part of the effort to eradicate polio from Somalia. He was in a unique position to convince the hesitant, and used that position to great effect. In 2013, when polio came back to the area, he got to work again… but this time he contracted malaria and died.

(Maalin was the last person to contract smallpox out in the wild. But he was not the last person to die of smallpox. In 1978 a lab outbreak in England killed a medical photographer named Janet Parker – she was the final case.)

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