In 1980, the WHO declared smallpox eradicated. But before they did so, Rahima Banu, a toddler in Bangladesh, was the last smallpox patient.
While many people remember when smallpox was eradicated, few remember to think of the survivors of this disease, such as Banu, who is now in her 40s.
Banu serves as a symbol of modern medicine and the power it can have, however, she has all but been forgotten. And to this day, many of her needs as a smallpox survivor go unmet.
“Banu and her family are proud, in an abstract sense, of her place in history, but their role in the eradication of smallpox speaks to the limits of merely fighting diseases,” Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease physician, wrote in The Atlantic.
When Banu survived smallpox, it seemed the world didn’t care to help her any further.
“Giving people medicine for TB and not giving them food is like washing your hands and drying them in the dirt,” Tracy Kidder quoted in his biography of doctor and philanthropist Paul Farmer. And that’s what happened to Banu.
Today, Banu shares a one-room home with her husband, son, and three daughters, with her husband bringing in just $5 on a good day of work.
To help Banu as a smallpox survivor, the WHO gave her a plot of land, however, without being able to cultivate it, the land isn’t very useful.
“They gave me the land, but the river consumes that. Some of it is in the river,” Banu told Gounder.
Not only is she unable to use the land in her name, but Banu and her husband cannot afford to send their children to college. This has led them to arrange a marriage for their daughter Begum, 23.
This goes to show that just because someone is given the means to survive a disease like smallpox, it does not necessarily mean their life is going to turn around once they have been cured, especially if they are not receiving help.
“As the coronavirus pandemic winds down in the United States, Banu’s life is a reminder that illness has a long tail of consequences and doesn’t end with a single shot,” Gounder wrote in The Atlantic.
Until equitable access has been made for health care, diseases like smallpox will continue to impact people’s lives even after being eradicated.
“The resulting disparities will get worse as the federal government turns America’s COVID response over to the routine health-care system,” Gounder said. Already, Americans can’t afford to stay home from work if they or their child gets sick. Many families don’t have the ability to care for their elders or children while holding a job. And Americans continue to worry about how they are going to make ends meet with things like groceries, gas, and bills.
While Banu’s suffering is much worse than many Americans, the message is the same.
“As long as vulnerable communities are deprived of holistic, comprehensive responses to monkeypox, COVID-19, Ebola, or other public-health emergencies to come, human beings will have a reason to be suspicious, and enlisting their help to fight the next crisis will be that much harder,” Gounder said.
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Written for Passport Health by Elle Johnson. Elle is a freelance journalist and social media content creator in Florida. Not only does she enjoy working as a freelancer, but in her free time she enjoys working on fictional stories.