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article imageMemories of smallpox outbreak stir nostalgia for Tito's time

By Katarina SUBASIC and Jovan MATIC (AFP)     Apr 30, 2020 in World

As the Balkans navigate the uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis, older generations are reminded of the last time they saw mass quarantines and contact-tracing: when their former communist country, Yugoslavia, snuffed out Europe's final smallpox outbreak 50 years ago.

With a vaccine already available, Yugoslav health authorities leapt into action, innoculating 18 million people in a matter of weeks and capping deaths at under 40.

For some, that efficiency has stirred nostalgia for the socialist era as the 40th anniversary of the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito draws near.

Many recall a well organised and free health system that outclassed present day care in the region, which lost out on years of development during the 1990s wars that fractured former Yugoslavia.

Today, hospitals are also struggling to hold on to doctors and nurses lured abroad by better wages and professional opportunities.

"Some people liked socialism, some didn't, but they all believed in the health system," recalls retired Serbian epidemiologist Zoran Radovanovic, who helped manage the smallpox outbreak in the 1970s.

"No one questioned doctors' decisions, everybody wanted to be vaccinated," he adds.

Today, faith in medicine is further undermined by a growing "anti-vaxxer" movement, which has gained a following in the region with the help of high-profile supporters such as tennis superstar Novak Djokovic.

The sportsman recently made headlines when he said that if a vaccine for the novel coronavirus was developed, he would oppose being forced to take one in order to travel to tennis tournaments.

Alarmed epidemiologists quickly tried to correct the record.

But the conspiracy theories also get visibility in newspapers, with Serbian tabloid Vecernje Novosti recently publishing a story claiming Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates "funded a vaccine for the virus before the COVID-19 outbreak even began".

- Vaccinating with pens -

Saying no to a vaccine would not have been an option in the time of Tito, who ran Yugoslavia until his death on May 4, 1980.

He was in charge when smallpox was carried into the country in 1972 by a Kosovo Albanian who picked up an infection in Iraq on his way back from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Since the virus had not been seen since 1930, local doctors did not immediately recognise the symptoms of fever, headache, fatigue and eventually rashes and blisters.

Once it was detected, however, the machinery of Tito's communist state lurched into action.

Authorities set up quarantines in hotels and campsites and ordered a aggressive vaccination campaign to cover the population.

"The army, police and all doctors were engaged" to track down the infected and help with the inoculations, remembers Ana Gligic, a virologist at the time.

Some doctors who lacked needles resorted to using flaming hot "pens and styluses" dipped in the vaccine, according to an observer mission by the US Center for Disease Control.

Gordana Vukmirovic, a 75-year-old retired economist, recalls how medical teams from a local hospital arrived at her Belgrade office to carry out injections.

Despite this, "life was normal, we went to work, public transport worked, stores worked," she said, drawing a contrast to today's lockdown.

The contact-tracing was also robust. In Belgrade alone, interviews involved some 3,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

After three months, the battle was won.

In total, 35 people had died and 175 were infected, with the rest of Europe left untouched.

- Tito's approval -

Fast-forward to today and the former Yugoslav republics have joined the rest of the world in facing the unprecedented chaos wrought by COVID-19.

Since detecting the first cases of the novel coronavirus in March, more than 400 people have died from the disease in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

Known infections in the region have topped 15,000.

Stuck at home under lockdowns, some have taken to re-watching the 1982 Yugoslavia film "Variola Vera" based on the smallpox outbreak.

Looking back, doctors have commented that Tito kept a relatively low public profile during the crisis.

But, as in other affairs, he ultimately called the shots.

It was Tito "who had to approve the announcement of the outbreak and it took him three days to do so, which made our work more difficult," said Radovanovic.

"We were putting people in quarantines but couldn't tell them why."

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