russia smallpox epidemic
© Russia Behind the Headlines
Det tog byens nødsituationer lidt mere end to uger at forhindre, at den dødbringende virus slap ud fra Moskva og sprede sig i hele Sovjetunionen.

Den 23. december 1959 trådte en mand us af en flyvemaskine, der ankom til Moskva fra Delhi, som snart uforvarende ville placere Sovjetunionens hovedstad i stor fare. Kunstner Alexei Kokorekin kunne ikke have forestillet sig, at han havde bragt kopper fra Indien.

Variola vera, eller kopper, var en af de dødeligste sygdomme, der nogensinde har påvirket menneskeheden. Det udslettede hele landsbyer, byer og endda hele lande. I det 8. århundrede dræbte det 30 procent af befolkningen i Japan, og i det 16. århundrede millioner af indfødte amerikanere, der blev smittede med virussen fra erobrerne.

Alexei Kokorekin
© Grigory Vail/TASS
Alexei Kokorekin.
Sovjetunionen tog lang og samordnet indsats for at bekæmpe kopper. Hvis antallet af mennesker inficeret med sygdommen i 1919 blev anslået til 186.000 over hele landet, mens tallet i 1936, var nul. 23 senere år var den farlige sygdom, som alle havde glemt, imidlertid tilbage.

Patient nul

Ved ankomsten havde Kokorekin symptomer på en mindre forkølelse, som - i betragtning af, at det var december - for ham virkede ganske normalt. Men allerede om aftenen samme dag steg hans temperatur, han udviklede en stærk hoste og havde ondt over hele kroppen.

En læge, som han konsulterede den næste dag, diagnosticerede influenza. Imidlertid hjalp medikamenterne, som Kokorekin blev ordineret, ikke. Han udviklede et udslæt over hele kroppen, som lægerne tog for en allergisk reaktion. Kun en ung praktikant, der havde lært, hvor kunstneren var ankommet fra, antydede med forsigtighed, at det kunne være kopper, men hendes forslag blev grinet af mere seniorlæger.

Den 29. december, efter at have tilbragt flere dage på en afdeling med flere andre influenzapatienter, døde Alexei Kokorekin. Lægerne har aldrig fundet ud af, hvad der rent faktisk havde dræbt den stærke 53-årige mand. Kort efter skubbede nytårsforberedelser og festlighederne den tragiske hændelse væk fra deres sind.


Start of the epidemic

smallpox russia USSR
© Getty Images
Smallpox patient USSR
However, Kokorekin's death was not the end of it. In the second week of the new year, several patients of the hospital developed the same symptoms: fever, cough, rash.

It was no longer possible to take any more risks. Specialists from the Research Institute of Vaccines and Sera were called in. Their conclusion came as a shock: Moscow had an outbreak of smallpox.

It turned out that during his trip to India, Alexey Kokorekin had attended a ceremonial burning of a deceased Brahmin and had even touched his things. It was there that patient zero contracted the deadly disease.

Unprecedented measures

On January 15, the news of the smallpox outbreak reached the country's leadership, who immediately mobilized all the resources of Moscow hospitals, clinics, police departments and the KGB. A search for potential carriers of the dangerous virus went on round-the-clock.
smallpox doctors USSR russia
© Mikhail Grachev/МАММ/МDF
Everyone whom Kokorekin had met and spoken to, whom his relatives had been in contact with, who had received his gifts from India were quarantined. Thus, 150 students from the university where his daughter Valeria was studying were taken to hospitals straight from lectures.

From primary contacts, the search progressed to secondary contacts and so on, until the whole chain was established. People were taken off trains and airplanes that carried potentially infectious people were ordered to turn back mid-air.
Botkin Hospital smallpox USSR russia
© Viktor Chenov/Sputnik
A total of 9,342 people were placed under quarantine. The Botkin Hospital, where patient zero had spent his last days, was in lockdown. Since there was not enough linen for thousands of doctors and patients trapped inside the hospital, by a special decree, the emergency state reserve, intended for the event of a war, was allowed to be used.

Eliminating the threat

USSR smallpox vaccination russia
© Vitaly Sozinov/TASS
A decisive measure in preventing the spread of smallpox was universal vaccination of all residents of Moscow and Moscow Region - adults, children and even those who were dying. Literally within a week, more than 9.5 million people were vaccinated - an unprecedented case in history.

To cope with the task, all medics were mobilized, from paramedics to medical students. "It was truly heroic," says virologist Svetlana Marennikova, MD. "Epidemiologists worked from morning to night."

In total, 45 people in Moscow were diagnosed with smallpox, three of whom died. By February 3, the disease had been eradicated. A timely and well-coordinated response from the Moscow law-enforcement and medical services helped stop the deadly virus in just 19 days.