Aaron Huey, Getty Images

Missie red-de-natuur

CHEVY CHASE, MARYLAND – Stel je voor: het is 1966, je staat in een overheidsgebouw in Washington, DC en je bent er getuige van dat een geüniformeerde functionaris een man in zakenkledij vertelt: ‘Je missie is om een vijand uit te roeien die meer mensen heeft gedood dan beide wereldoorlogen samen. Je zal een armzalig budget krijgen, over een klein team beschikken, en mocht je falen zal het ministerie elke wetenschap van je acties ontkennen.’

Het lijkt op een scène uit een Hollywoodfilm, en weerspiegelt dan ook de openingsscènes van de tv-serie Mission Impossible die in dat jaar in première ging. Maar het is waargebeurd, alleen niet precies in die woorden. De functionaris was staatssecretaris van Gezondheidszorg in de VS James Watt; de man met een missie was Donald Henderson, wetenschapper van het Communicable Disease Center (CDC); en de vijand was het pokkenvirus.

De missie leek absoluut onhaalbaar. Toentertijd doodden pokken elk jaar tot twee miljoen mensen en besmetten er nog eens vijftien miljoen. Toch tartten Henderson en zijn team bij de Wereldgezondheidsorganisatie (WHO) alle verwachtingen. In iets meer dan tien jaar werden pokken de eerste – en tot nu toe de enige – infectieziekte bij mensen ooit die helemaal werd uitgeroeid.

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