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July 18, 2023 22 mins

In the mid-’60s, the national campaign to eradicate smallpox in India was underway, but the virus was still widespread throughout the country. At the time, Dinesh Bhadani was a small boy living in Gaya, a city in the state of Bihar. In his community many people believed smallpox was divine, sent by the Hindu goddess Shitala Mata. In Bihar people had misgivings about accepting the vaccine because, Bhadani says, they did not want to interfere with the will of the goddess. Others hesitated because making the vaccine required using cows, which are sacred in the Hindu religion. Still others hesitated because the procedure — which involved twirling a barbed disk into a patient’s skin — hurt.

But when Bhadani was 10 years old, he saw the body of a school friend who had died of smallpox. The body was covered in blistering pustules, the skin not visible at all.

Soon after, when eradication workers came to town, young Bhadani remembered his friend, gritted his teeth, and agreed to get the painful vaccine. 

Variola major smallpox was deadly and highly contagious. Infected people often died within two weeks – many of them young children. Those who survived could be left severely scarred, infertile, or blind.

Episode 1 of “Eradicating Smallpox” explores the layered cultural landscape that eradication workers navigated as they worked to eliminate the virus. Success required technological innovations, cultural awareness, and a shared dream that a huge public health triumph was possible. 

To close the episode, Céline Gounder wonders how the U.S. might tap into similar “moral imagination” to prepare for the next public health crisis. 

Find a transcript of this episode here.

To hear other KFF Health News podcasts, click here.

Subscribe to Epidemic on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


In Conversation with Céline Gounder:

adrienne maree brown
Social justice organizer and science fiction author

Voices from the Episode:

  • Rajendra Prasad Dhyani, temple priest at the Shitala Mata Temple in New Delhi
  • Dinesh Bhadani, retired Indian Railways station manager living in New Delhi
  • Priyanka Bhadani, journalist living in Delhi
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