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World beat smallpox 40 years ago, we can beat COVID-19 by working together: WHO

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: WHO says anniversary of smallpox eradication is a reminder of what’s possible when nations come together' Coronavirus outbreak: WHO says anniversary of smallpox eradication is a reminder of what’s possible when nations come together
Coronavirus outbreak: WHO says anniversary of smallpox eradication is a reminder of what’s possible when nations come together – May 8, 2020

Smallpox was eradicated 40 years ago after “unprecedented” co-operation between nations, and a similar global effort could help bring an end to COVID-19, World Health Organization officials said Friday.

Speaking on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “smallpox is the first and to date the only human disease to be eradicated globally.”

READ MORE: FDA approves drug for smallpox nearly 40 years after disease was eradicated — here’s why

“Humanity’s victory over smallpox is a reminder of what’s possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat,” Tedros said. “Many of the basic public health tools that were used successfully then are the same tools that have been used to respond to Ebola and to COVID: disease surveillance, case finding, contact tracing and mass communication campaigns to inform affected populations.”

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Smallpox had a vaccine though, he noted, which COVID-19 does not yet have. However, it took 184 years after the invention of the smallpox vaccine for the disease to be wiped out, he said.

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“The decisive factor in the victory over smallpox was global solidarity,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus:   In a race for a vaccine, but will it happen?' Coronavirus: In a race for a vaccine, but will it happen?
Coronavirus: In a race for a vaccine, but will it happen? – May 3, 2020

According to Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies program, countries are focusing on the wrong things right now in the fight against COVID-19.

He said all nations should focus on the fundamentals of the global coronavirus fight: scouting potential new infections, hunting them down, confirming them and then separating those afflicted to save others from the disease.

“We seem… to be avoiding the uncomfortable reality that we need to get back to public health surveillance,” Ryan said.

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“We need to go back to where we should have been months ago — finding cases, tracking cases, testing cases, isolating people who are tested positive, doing quarantine for contacts.”

READ MORE: Forgotten vials of smallpox found in U.S. storage room

He urged nations to stick together as the disease spreads from country to country, sometimes at different rates and with wide swings in death tolls. He highlighted how Russia appears to be dealing with a “delayed epidemic” as a spike in confirmed new infections in recent days has catapulted it past France and Germany in total number of cases.

“Through solidarity we will win the fight and nobody is safe until everybody is safe,” Ryan said. “There is a path out, but we must remain ever-vigilant, and we may have to have a significant alteration of our lifestyles until we get to a point where we have an effective vaccine.”

There has been a slew of news in recent days about vaccine candidates, including announcements that tests in humans have begun, with some trials expected by summer, though experts have warned that a successful preventive treatment may still be many months away.

— with files from Reuters

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