Smallpox is a contagious virus that causes an array of unpleasant symptoms—a raised pink rash on the skin that later turns to blisters, backache, delirium, diarrhea, excessive bleeding, fatigue, high fever, headache, and vomiting.
According to Wikipedia, the first recorded smallpox epidemic was in 1350 B.C. Most major cities in Europe had cases of the disease by the 18th century. The virus can live anywhere from 6 to 24 hours outside a host—on clothes, bedding, furniture, towels, etc. It’s no wonder the virus killed millions of people in Europe and Mexico in widespread epidemics. Of those infected, 20 to 60 percent of adults and 80 percent of children died from the disease. So how is it that on May 8, 1980, the World Health Assembly declared the world free of smallpox?
The eradication of smallpox is due to the eradication of old medical practices—a break-with the traditions of the time. Super high fatality rates prompted people to look for better methods of combating the problem. Instead of waiting for people to get sick and then trying to treat them, people looked for ways to prevent the disease in the first place. They started to think proactively instead of reactively.
Variolation is the practice of exposing a healthy person to infected material in hopes of producing a mild form of a disease that will provide immunity. The first written account of variolation describes a Buddhist nun grinding up scabs taken from a person infected with smallpox, and then blowing the resulting powder into the nostrils of a non-immune person. By the 1700s, variolation was common practice in China, India, and Turkey. While some people still died from variolation, the total number of smallpox fatalities decreased ten-fold.
Variolation gave way to another proactive method against smallpox—vaccination. An English physician, Edward Jenner, developed the first vaccine against smallpox using the milder disease of cowpox, which provided a reasonable degree of immunity. World health officials then went on a long mission to eradicate smallpox, which they achieved in 1980.
The story behind the eradication of smallpox is symbolic for any organization facing a stubborn challenge that won’t go away and may be draining life from the organization. Smallpox exposes a break-with insight:
Break-With Insight: Primarily focus on prevention, not on treatment.
Yes, of course, you may think. Focusing on prevention is logical and certainly more effective than treating illness. But while prevention is logical and more effective, it is not common practice. So many problems and challenges in the workplace, in communities, and in the world are handled with treatment and cures rather than prevention.
Law enforcement organizations are some of the biggest offenders with this mentality. Our energy, resources, and best thinking go toward treatments—build more prisons, hire more judges, develop more inmate programs, buy more weapons, hire more police officers, etc. All of these methods focus on treating an uncivil society instead of preventing it.
Coming at a problem from a proactive, preventive mindset opens up all sorts of possibilities and options. Admittedly, it may also open up criticism and skepticism. In which case, you’re in good company with Dr. Edward Jenner, who was also harshly criticized for his original vaccine against smallpox.