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Mission: Save the Environment

Fifty years ago, the World Health Organization initiated a global campaign to eradicate smallpox – a campaign that not even it believed could succeed. Yet, in just over a decade, the disease was defeated, proving that the world can come together to address shared problems.

CHEVY CHASE, MARYLAND – Picture this. It is 1966. You are standing in a government office in Washington, DC, watching a uniformed official tell a man in business attire, “Your mission is to eradicate an enemy that has killed more people than both world wars combined. You will have a paltry budget, a small team, and should you fail, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”

It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie. And, indeed, it mirrors the opening scenes of the Mission: Impossible television series that premiered that year. But it really happened, if not in precisely those words. The official was Assistant Surgeon General James Watt; the man with the mission was Communicable Disease Center (CDC) scientist Donald Henderson; and the enemy was smallpox.

The mission certainly seemed impossible. At the time, smallpox was killing as many as two million people, and infecting another 15 million, each year. Yet, like in the series, Henderson and his team at the World Health Organization defied expectations. In just over a decade, smallpox became the first – and, so far, the only – infectious human disease ever to be fully eradicated.

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