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A Brief History Of Smallpox

Smallpox, an extremely infectious disease caused by one of two varieties of virus, was a serious worldwide medical concern until its elimination by vaccination. Over the span of human history, the presence of smallpox has waxed and waned, leaving in its wake outbreaks of the virus which, at times, reached pandemic proportions. While smallpox is not always a fatal illness, every variety has the potential to be fatal. As late as the mid 1900s, even individuals living in first world countries were routinely immunized against the destructive virus, a vaccination which leaves a distinctive circular scar. Smallpox is no longer a serious threat, but it has an extensive history and has made its mark on humankind.

The History of Smallpox

It is estimated that the presence of virus variants Variola major and Variola minor, the variants responsible for smallpox, were first observed in humans circa 10,000 BC. The first historical evidence of a smallpox case that was conclusively observed was done so when examining the remains of the Pharaoh Ramses V. The virus took the lives of over four hundred thousand Europeans per year as the conclusion of the 18th century neared, and was the third leading cause of vision loss. Adults who contracted the disease during this time had as much as a 60% chance of loss of life, while infected children sustained a mortality rate of 80%. During the 20th century, the loss of life caused by smallpox was immense, with a maximum estimate of five hundred million deaths during that century alone.

The Epidemiology of Smallpox

Smallpox was a virus which had an extremely high rate of contagion. After an individual was exposed to Variola major, they would begin to display symptoms in approximately 12 days. The first region of the body which the virus attached was the oral and respiratory areas, effecting the production of mucus, the blood vessels in the mouth and throat and the lymph nodes in the face and throat area. Infected cells multiplied rapidly, causing the virus to become serious quickly as it attacked the marrow of the bones as well as the spleen.

External symptoms first exhibited by affected people often included a high fever, aching muscles, exhaustion, head pain, nausea and vomiting. After these initial symptoms, smallpox lesions would begin to appear within the mouth and throat. The large size of these lesions and their ease of rupture caused the virus to continually be released back into the affected person's system through their digestive tract. About two days after these lesions became prevalent, the skin on the rest of the body would also begin to develop a rash, starting with the face and neck and spreading downward and outward until the entire body was covered. Sufferers were faced with one of four variants of the illness- ordinary, which carried a fatality rate of 62%, modified, a rarely fatal variation, and both malignant and hemorrhagic which were near conclusively fatal.

The Treatment and Eradication of Smallpox

Smallpox was first treated via an inoculation which included the nasal inhalation of smallpox scabs which had been ground into a powder. This practice was performed circa 1000 BC in India, where the disease was prevalent at the time. The Chinese used similar methods of prevention during the 10th and 16th centuries during peak outbreaks of the illness. The original smallpox vaccination was developed by Edward Jenner, an English doctor who concluded that individuals inoculated with a substance drawn from a cowpox lesion would lead to an immunity. This vaccination was the grandfather of the smallpox vaccine which still exists today. The commonality and availability of the vaccination led to the disease being conclusively considered to be eradicated, with the last naturally diagnosed case taking place in 1977 and eradication being declared in 1979. Currently, the only individuals who typically receive a smallpox vaccine are military members preparing for deployment and laboratory employees who may be at risk for infectious disease exposure.


This piece was composed by Charlie Kramer, a freelance writer, blogger and video creator who focuses on health, wellness, nutritional science, medical science, the healthcare industry, and other relevant issues; to learn more about vaccines, click Houston Vaccines.

Emergency Essentials/BePrepared
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