Smallpox is a contagious, sometimes fatal, infectious disease. The name stems from the Latin word for “spotted” in reference to the raised bumps and rashes that appear on an infected person’s skin. Of its two clinical forms, variola major smallpox is the most common and severe. The other variant of the virus is called variola minor. Historically, the overall fatality rate stands at about 30%. However, there are forms of the disease where that rate stands much closer to 100%.
That said, while there have been outbreaks from time to time throughout human history, the disease has since been eliminated from nature thanks to an aggressive worldwide vaccination campaign. The last recorded case in the United States occurred in 1949, with the last one in the world appearing in Somalia in 1977. Only two smallpox samples now exist in approved laboratory conditions in the US and Russia.
Smallpox symptoms generally appear about two weeks after infection. During the incubation period, the patient looks and feels normal and healthy, and they are unable to infect anyone else. Then the person suddenly experiences symptoms that resemble the flu, which may include:
After this stage, red spots and rashes begin to appear on the patient’s skin. They start at the face and hands, eventually working their way down the arms to the torso. Some of these rashes will fill with fluid to form blisters. Scabs develop after about a week and leave noticeable scars upon falling away. Sores can also appear within the membranes of the nasal cavity and mouth and turn into blistering sores.
Smallpox is caused by the variola virus which is also just generally known as the smallpox virus. This virus is part of the Orthopoxvirus which includes other detriments to mammals such as cowpox, horsepox, and monkeypox. In most cases, this virus is able to infiltrate through the respiratory system by using the residing in the respiratory mucosa. However, it is also capable of invading through various other means such as through the skin. It has a long and storied history which dates back almost 68,000 years with many devastating instances of its use as a bioterrorism tool.
Prolonged face-to-face contact is the most common means of transmission which happens when an uninfected person is exposed to a carrier. The range is about 6 feet, but if the virus lingers in bodily fluids then it will be able to pass on to others who have subsequent direct contact with it.
There is no treatment or cure in existence for the smallpox disease. Instead, prevention is key. Vaccinations exist to stave off infection and transmission. However, because smallpox no longer exists naturally, routine vaccines for the general public have been halted, as they are no longer necessary to prevent the disease from spreading.
An inoculation procedure was eventually developed, but the exact origins of the research which led to it is still controversial. This went a long way towards helping to eliminate the epidemics and such that were detrimental to many regions of the world.
It was in the late 1700s that Edward Jenner developed a vaccination which utilized the cowpox lesion material in order to develop immunity. From that point on, it was eventually given to a great number of people until 1972 in the United States since at that point it was effectively declared eradicated. At that point, more people were falling to vaccine-induced illnesses and death than were actually succumbing to the smallpox virus itself. Because of that, the vaccine was eventually phased out, but some people with high-risk occupations such as laboratory workers and perhaps military personnel still receive this effective preventative measure.