Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP
Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP is the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, and completed her residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Indiana University.
Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
- What is smallpox?
- What is the history of smallpox?
- What causes smallpox?
- How is smallpox transmitted?
- What are smallpox symptoms and signs?
- How is smallpox diagnosed?
- What is the treatment for smallpox?
- Can smallpox be prevented with a vaccine?
- What is the prognosis for smallpox, and what are complications of smallpox?
- Where can people find more information on smallpox?
- Smallpox At A Glance
- Find a local Doctor in your town
What is smallpox?
Smallpox is an infectious disease of the past that was eliminated by vaccination. The disease was caused by the variola virus, which spread from person to person. Affected people became very ill with a high fever and a characteristic rash. Up to one-third of people with smallpox died. Although the disease has been wiped out, samples of the virus still exist in high-security laboratories in the United States and Russia. This has led to concerns about use of the virus in biological warfare. For this reason, some military personnel are still vaccinated against smallpox.
What is the history of smallpox?
Smallpox is thought to have existed for more
than 12,000 years. Evidence of infection can be found in mummies from ancient
Egypt, including the mummy of Ramses V. Smallpox entered the New World in the
16th century, carried by European explorers and conquistadors. Because the
aboriginal inhabitants had no immunity to the disease, smallpox often decimated
native populations. There are even reports where infected blankets were used to
intentionally infect Native American populations in the 18th
It was not until the end of the 18th century that an effective method of vaccination was developed. It was an English scientist named Edward Jenner who discovered it. Jenner observed that milkmaids often got a mild disease called cowpox and that this seemed to make them immune to smallpox. His vaccination strategy involved transferring the blister fluid from a person with cowpox to a person who had not yet had smallpox. This gave the susceptible person a cowpox infection (which was usually mild) and conveyed protection from smallpox. After a time, a virus similar to cowpox, called vaccinia, was substituted in the vaccine.
The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) certified that the world was finally free of smallpox. Thus, smallpox was the first disease to be entirely eradicated. Campaigns are now under way to try to eliminate other diseases such as polio and measles.
The WHO has encouraged all member nations to destroy any remaining laboratory cultures of the virus. However, the rise of biological warfare technology led to concerns that smallpox could be weaponized and used in bioterrorism. Both the U.S. and Russia decided to retain their stockpiles in case they were needed to produce novel vaccines against a biological agent. This has understandably stirred up controversy, and the WHO is expected to renew its request to eliminate stockpiles in 2011. Supporters of retaining the cultures note that existing stocks of the virus have been used to develop and test new treatments and vaccines. The entire viral genome has been sequenced, leading to concerns that the virus may be recreated even if current stocks are destroyed.
Smallpox is a deadly disease and is on the list of potential biological weapons that are considered to pose the greatest threat to public health. Other agents on this list include anthrax, plague, smallpox, botulism, tularemia, and the viral hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola and Marburg viruses.
Next: What causes smallpox?
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