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Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1983 Jun 22;218(1212):259-85.

The Florey lecture, 1983. Biological control, as exemplified by smallpox eradication and myxomatosis.


Biological control is an important method of dealing with plant and insect pests. The control of rabbits by myxomatosis and the eradication of smallpox by vaccination are unusual examples of biological control, in that they involve a vertebrate and a viral pest respectively. Myxomatosis is a benign disease in Sylvilagus rabbits in South America which is transmitted mechanically by mosquitoes. In the European rabbit, Oryctolagus, which is a pest in Australia and England, the virus from Sylvilagus produces a generalized disease that is almost always lethal. Myxomatosis was deliberately introduced into Australia in 1950 and into Europe in 1952. It was at first spectacularly successful in controlling the rabbit pest, but biological adjustments occurred in the virulence of the virus and the genetic resistances of rabbits. After 30 years of interaction, natural selection has resulted in a balance at a fairly high level of viral virulence. Smallpox has been a major scourge of mankind for over 1500 years. It spread from Asia to Europe in the Middle ages and from Europe to Africa and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Jenner's cowpox vaccine provided a method of control that reduced the severity of the disease during the 19th century but failed to eliminate the disease from many countries before the 1930s. Thereafter it was eradicated from Europe and North America, but remained endemic in South America, Africa and Asia. In 1967 it was still endemic in 33 countries and W.H.O. established a programme for global eradication within 10 years. The goal was achieved in 1977. Problems of the eradication programme and reasons for its success will be described.

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