China in the worldwide eradication of smallpox, 1949-1980: recovering and democratising histories of international health

Year of award: 2017


  • Lu Chen

    University of York

Project summary

China exited the World Health Organization and the United Nations in 1949/50 in protest against the USA’s promotion of China Taipei in the international arena. China remained an ally of the USSR and other Warsaw Pact signatories between 1950-1970, responding to the Soviet commitment to eradicate smallpox in the early 1950s by creating new epidemiological and vaccination networks. While both countries made significant progress in limiting the disease, they struggled to achieve eradication because of re-importations from neighbouring countries. China worked with the USSR on global eradication efforts outside WHO-sponsored structures, assisted by aid – in the form of advisers, public health personnel, vaccine, vaccinating kits, money and technology – from the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Sweden. Comprehensive vaccination programmes led to China announcing smallpox eradication in the mid-1960s, which was certified by WHO delegations and an independent international team in the mid-1970s. Unused aid from Sweden was returned to a cash-strapped WHO through ostentatious, public ceremonies in Beijing and this money helped eradication programmes in India, Bangladesh and East Africa.

I will study how all these interlinked developments combined to achieve the global eradication of smallpox by 1980.