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New Perspectives in South Asian History


Vikas Bajpai

THE SMALLPOX ERADICATION SAGA: AN INSIDER'S VIEW
By Isao Arita Edited by Alan Schnur & Masanobu Sugimoto

Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 189

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 12 December 2011

Smallpox eradication remains one of the most outstanding achievements in the area of international public health. Any account of this extraordinary achievement of the collective human race ought to evoke interest, especially if it comes from a person of Isao Arita's erudition. Arita was one of the primary architects of WHO's 'Intensified Small-pox Eradication Campaign' and later came to head the 'smallpox eradication unit' of the WHO at the most crucial time of the fight against the disease. Arita chronicles the saga of smallpox eradication from the beginning of its 'inten-sified phase' till the 'preparedness to prevent the return of smallpox' and meticulous docu-mentation of the whole effort, in a narrative that is not just intelligible to the laity and the scientific community alike but even edges on to becoming a thriller providing an intense action-packed account of the duel between man and the smallpox virus. The whole account of the smallpox eradi-cation campaign in the horn of Africa com-prising Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya is particularly riveting and by far the most interesting portion of the book. This region formed an arena of intense geopolitical tensions between the countries of the region then, as indeed it is even today. The Ogaden desert spanning across Ethiopia, Somalia and north of Kenya constitutes the larger stage for the grandstand with smallpox in the end game with the entire focus narrowed down to the triangle between Dimo (Ethiopia), Ledi (Kenya) and Mogadishu (Somalia). A nomadic population that is constantly on the move with little regard for international boundaries, simmering guerilla warfare and frank military conflict breaking out between Ethiopia and Somalia, inaccessible human ha-bitations and even abduction of senior WHO personnel by the guerillas of the 'Western Somalia Liberation Front' add considerably to the drama of the end game. The description by Arita of his flight from Geneva to Mogadishu upon hearing of an unexpected outbreak in the Somali capital of the Italian hotel where he stayed; his meeting with the Somali health minister; interview of the smallpox case at the quarantine station in Mogadishu and the subsequent border meeting between the Somali and the Ethiopian small-pox workers, all of which take place in quick succession appear like a portion straight from the script of a Hollywood thriller. But at the same time all of this signifies the immense operational challenges that the programme had to negotiate before finally eradicating smallpox. In ...


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