So far, the human race has eliminated just one disease in history: smallpox. But it’s on the cusp of adding a second virus — polio — to that list.
One special man in Somalia was at the battlefront of both eradication efforts. He died unexpectedly last week at age 59 of a sudden illness.
Ali Maow Maalin was the last member of the general public to catch smallpox — worldwide. And he spent the past decade working to end polio in Somalia.
World health leaders called Maalin “an inspiration.” Even in the weeks before his death, he was leading anti-polio campaigns in some of the most unstable parts of Somalia.
Maalin’s fight against polio began in 1977. Jimmy Carter had just been elected U.S. president. Apple Computer had just incorporated in California. And the world was on the verge of wiping out smallpox. Decades of vaccination efforts had pushed the virus into one last corner of the world: Somalia.
Maalin, then a hospital cook near Mogadishu, caught smallpox while driving an infected family to a clinic. He was careful not to spread the disease to anyone. And about three years later, Somalia — and the world — were declared free of smallpox.
Photo courtesy of the World Health Organization.