In Madrid, the police have broken up a human trafficking ring that forced Nigerian women into prostitution by threatening them with smallpox, along with assorted other voodoo curses. The perpetrators would entice African women with the prospects of a better life in Europe, and took the women to a voodoo priest before smuggling them into Spain. During the voodoo ritual, the women had to swear that they would not reveal the name of their captors, and body parts such as hair and fingernails were collected. Then the traffickers demanded that the women repay them for their efforts by becoming prostitutes, under threat of voodoo spiritual consequences. According to a Nigerian journalist, Voodoo is a common intimidation weapon used by traffickers. He continues, “If the priest tells them they will get smallpox, then they believe they will catch smallpox.” A similar Dutch based group that trafficked mostly Nigerian children with voodoo was arrested in October 2007.
Although this article may seem to be only tangentially related to smallpox, I think that it reveals a lot about the power of spiritual beliefs associated with disease, including smallpox. In these societies, smallpox still seems to retain a mystical air, used by spirits to punish those who come under their wrath. Of course, misinformation and lack of education plays an important role too, because if the women knew about the risk of smallpox infection (0%) they may not be as threatened by the voodoo tactics.