Yugoslav smallpox epidemic (1972)

Small pox epidemic in Yugoslavia in 1972
Image by Glas Istre

Before COVID-19, the last large epidemic to hit the Balkans occurred about 50 years ago. In 1972, smallpox hit the Yugoslav territories of Belgrade and Kosovo.

The Yugoslav smallpox epidemic was quickly restrained thanks to the quick actions of the former Yugoslav government. Although this disease is very dangerous and spreads quickly, the epidemic was finished after just two months. Only 175 people were infected with the virus, 35 of which died.

In this article, we cover:

Let’s go back in time…

Yugoslav smallpox epidemic (1972)

What you need to know about the smallpox virus

Smallpox virus (lat. variola vera major) called ”velike boginje” is a highly contagious disease that (luckily) has been eradicated all over the world. The mortality from the smallpox virus is 30%, which is extremely high.

The virus is spread from person to person by direct contact and droplets. It can also be transmitted with infected clothing and bed sheets. One infected person can infect from 10 to 20 people.

Complications of the disease are related to respiratory problems such as bronchitis and pneumonia. The disease is difficult to cure and often results with permanent blindness or mutilation. Recovered persons are left with scars from blisters on their face.

Before development of the vaccine, the smallpox virus made serious marks on the history of mankind. The earliest discovery of the disease was found on the mummified body of the pharaoh Ramses V. from the 12th century B.C.

One of the biggest smallpox epidemics occurred after the discovery of American continent in the 16th century. Europeans brought the disease to indigenous populations, which wiped out much of their population. In the 20th century alone, the disease killed between 300 and 500 million people.

Nowadays, the virus exists only in laboratories. If the virus reappears, almost all people could get infected including the ones who were vaccinated in the past. Since 1977, no case has appeared thanks to mass vaccination. The virus can survive only in the human body, but not in nature.

The World Health Organization has recommended that all mandatory vaccinations against the smallpox virus stop. Vaccination is recommended only for people who are exposed to the virus such as healthcare workers, laboratory staff, and coroners.

First Yugoslav case in 1972

The first case of the smallpox virus in Yugoslavia occurred in 1972, which started the Yugoslav smallpox epidemic. A citizen of a the small village Damjane near Đakvice, Kosovo returned from his trip to the Middle East. He was infected with the smallpox virus.

After noticing first symptoms, he went to the hospital in Belgrade. At first, no one knew what he suffered from, since this disease had not occurred in Yugoslavia since the 1930s. By the time he reached the hospital, he had already transmitted the virus to 27 people in Belgrade. As a result, the smallpox epidemic erupted in the areas of Belgrade and Kosovo.

Declaration of the epidemic and vaccination

The epidemic was covered up at first. However, Yugoslavia promptly declared a state of emergency. Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia, declared it a smallpox epidemic soon after the appearance of the first case. The state asked the World Health Organization and Donald Henderson, a prominent epidemiologist at the time, for urgent help.

People wearing masks during Yugoslav smallpox epidemic
Image by Radio Sarajevo

Quarantines were organized in hotels and camps. Everyone including the Yugoslav army, police and doctors were in charge of detecting infected persons and executing the vaccination process. Quarantined citizens weren’t allowed to move and there were no exceptions. More than 1.000 people were quarantined in Belgrade.

All contact with infected people were quickly identified and tracked. More than 3.000 contacts were interviewed in Belgrade.

The state started mass vaccination about a month after the first case was identified. People were very scared of this serious disease and everyone wanted to get vaccinated. Request of the vaccine was not necessary. People just showed up to get the vaccine without any calls or requests. They wanted to get the vaccine to end the nightmare as soon as possible .

Yugoslav health workers vaccinated 18 million people in about one month. Despite the epidemic, people continued with their normal lives. Everyone continued to go to work. The shops were operating normally and the city transport didn’t stop.

The smallpox epidemic finished only two months after the declaration of the first case. April 21, 1971 was the official end date. After the epidemic ended, restrictions were still held for some time to assure that the horror story would not return.

The total number of infected people in all of Yugoslavia was 175 with only 35 deaths, in a population of approximately 20.600.000. In Croatia, 50 people were quarantined and about 3 million people were vaccinated, but no one was infected. The epidemic never crossed the Yugoslav borders.

Actions of the Yugoslav’s healthcare system

Workers of the Yugoslav healthcare system worked very hard to contain the epidemic, yielding obvious results. Queues for the vaccination were enormous. Everything happened very quickly. There was no delay at vaccination points and there was no charge to citizens.

Serbian epidemiologist Radmilo Petrović said that Yugoslav health services were very well organized and had a fast response. He led 8 quarantines in Belgrade. There were 4 quarantines in the hospital and 4 outside of the hospital. Their goal was not to put more than two persons in the same room at once.

Thanks to the fast and well-organized Yugoslav healthcare system, the epidemic was stopped quickly. Their fast response cut the chain. The second wave included only 5 infected persons in Belgrade who didn’t infect anyone else.

Some doctors were very creative at the time. They used the gramophone needles as an alternative to medical needles when they had a lack. They dipped the gramophone needles in the vaccine and vaccinated citizens. Everyone’s goal was to stop the epidemic as fast as possible.

Vecernji List reporting on the smallpox epidemic in Yugoslavia
Image by 24 Sata

False news and rumors

The first official information on the appearance of the smallpox virus was published on March 17, 1972. However, the first case occurred on March 9, 1972. At the time, the Yugoslav media wasn’t allowed to report about the epidemic. The first news was transmitted from mouth to mouth. After the official declaration of the epidemic, citizens were again poorly informed about the disease. For this reason, it is hard to pin down exact dates as they vary from source to source.

Regardless of the quick reactions of the Yugoslav healthcare system, there were also many flaws. Some people fabricated false vaccination records for traveling abroad and some stole vaccinations. Rumors and false news spread quickly, which triggered panic in people.

Movie “Variola Vera” (1982)

There is a Yugoslav movie called “Variola vera” based on the true events from the Yugoslav smallpox epidemic. It was recorded in 1982. This movie is considered to be one of the most prominent works of Yugoslav cinematography. It is a combination of a horror and disaster movie.

Variola vera is directed by Goran Marković. Rade Šerbedžija, Erland Jozefson, and Dušica Žegarac play the main roles.

The whole movie can be watched here.

Importance of vaccination

Child being vaccinated against smallpox during Yugoslav epidemic
Image by 24 Sata

This story is only one of many proving the importance of vaccination. Vaccination is an effective protection against infectious diseases that occur all around the world. Vaccinations prevent the spread of disease, which can lead to an epidemic.

Their purpose is to adapt to the immune system to protect it from certain diseases caused by viruses and bacteria.

The first vaccination ever produced in the world was actually the one against smallpox during the 18th century. Thanks to this vaccination, the smallpox virus was eradicated. The last smallpox case occurred in Somalia in 1977.

It is the obligation of every aware person to contribute to the safety of society and the protection of vulnerable groups. By following relevant news sources and understanding the importance of vaccination, we can make this world a safer place for everyone.

Don’t forget that everyone’s voice is important. Changes always start with “small ordinary people”. Share relevant sources on vaccination and positive thoughts with people surrounding you.

If you soon plan to get vaccinated, check out our post here on how to get vaccinated in Croatia, including how to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

More information on mandatory vaccinations that are required by the Croatian law is available in this post.

Činjenice o cjepivu
Velike boginje by MSD
Najveće pandemije kroz povijest by Synlab
Velike boginje u Jugoslaviji by Slobodna Dalmacija
VARIOLA VERA Kako je Jugoslavija 1972. svladala epidemiju velikih boginja by NL
Prije 40 godina iskorijenjen opasan virus: Ubio je stotine milijuna ljudi, preživjeli su bili unakaženi by Večernji list
Između velikih boginja i koronavirusa
Variola vera – art-kino.org

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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