Special talk by scientist who was instrumental in the eradication of smallpox

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A scientist who was instrumental in the eradication of smallpox, Emeritus Professor Frank Fenner, presented a special talk at the University of Wollongong, Australia on August 11 in this, the 25th year since the eradication of smallpox.

Professor Fenner, now aged 89, presented the talk: "Smallpox, bioterrorism and emerging infections." Professor Fenner is recognised worldwide as Australia's most distinguished living microbiologist.

Smallpox is believed to have originated over 3,000 years ago. The disease, for which no effective treatment was ever developed, killed as many as 30 per cent of those infected. Between 65-80 per cent of survivors were marked with deep pitted scars (pockmarks), most prominent on the face. In the early 1950's - 50 years after the introduction of vaccination - an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year, a figure which fell to around 10-15 million by 1967 because of vaccination. In 1967, when the World Health Organisation launched an intensified plan to eradicate smallpox, the "ancient scourge" threatened 60 per cent of the world's population, killed every fourth victim, scarred or blinded most survivors, and eluded any form of treatment.

Through the success of the global eradication campaign, including Emeritus Professor Fenner,smallpox was finally pushed back to the horn of Africa and then to a single last natural case, which occurred in Somalia in 1977. A fatal laboratory-acquired case occurred in the United Kingdom in 1978. The global eradication of smallpox was certified, based on intense verification activities in countries, by a commission of eminent scientists(including Professor Fenner) in December 1979 and subsequently endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 1980.

Professor Fenner graduated in medicine from the University of Adelaide in 1938, and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1942, for papers on the physical anthropology of Australian aborigines.

Professor Fenner served in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps from 1940 to 1946, and in 1945 was awarded an MBE for his work in malaria control in New Guinea. After the war he worked for brief periods with Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Dr René Dubos, and in 1949 was appointed Professor of Microbiology in the John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University.From 1967 until 1973 he was Director of the John Curtin School, and from 1973-79 Director of the Centre of Resource and Environmental Studies in the Australian National University.

After official retirement at the end of 1979 he was appointed a visiting fellow in the John Curtin School of Medical Research, a position which he still occupies. In 1976 he was made a CMG for contributions to medical research and in 1989 he was awarded the AC for his contributions to preventive medicine.

His principal research work has been concerned with poxviruses: mousepox, myxomatosis, vaccinia genetics and smallpox, and his writing with poxviruses, animal virology, smallpox eradication, environmental problems and the history of science. He has published about 300 scientific papers and been editor of four books and sole author or coauthor of 14 books.

Since 1965 he has been a member of the World Health Organisation Expert Advisory Panel on Virus Diseases, and from 1969 onwards he was associated with the Intensified Smallpox Eradication Program of the World Health Organisation, being Chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication from 1977 to 1979 and Chairman of the Committee on Orthopoxvirus Infections from 1980 to 1985 and at its meetings as an Ad Hoc Committee in 1986, 1990 and 1994. In 1988 he shared the Japan Prize (Preventive Medicine) with Dr D.A. Henderson (USA) and Dr I. Arita (Japan) for work on smallpox eradication.

He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1954, and gave its Flinders Lecture in 1967 and Burnet Lecture in 1985. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1958, and gave its Leuwenhoek Lecture in 1961 and Florey Lecture in 1983, and was awarded the Copley Medal in 1995. He was elected a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1977, and he has honorary doctorates from Monash, Liège, Oxford Brookes and The Australian National Universities. He received the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, 2000, the Clunies Ross Science and Technology Lifetime Award, 2002, the Prime Minister‚s Prize for Science, 2002 and ACT Australian of the Year 2003.



The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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