Smallpox is an extremely contagious and deadly virus for which there is no known cure. The last known case occurred in the U.S. in 1949 and due...

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What is Smallpox?

Smallpox is an extremely contagious and deadly virus for which there is no known cure. The last known case occurred in the U.S. in 1949 and due to worldwide vaccination programs, this disease has been completely eradicated. Smallpox is also known as “variola.”

Since the time of ancient Egypt, smallpox has proven to be one of the most devastating diseases to humankind. Widespread smallpox epidemics and huge death tolls fill the pages of our history books. Over the course of history, one-third of the people who contracted smallpox died.

The first smallpox vaccine was created in 1758. However, the disease continued to infect and kill people on a widespread basis for another 200 years. Even in the 1950s, there were 50 million cases reported around the world. According to the World Health Organization, these numbers fell to between 10 and 15 million by 1967, thanks to the implementation of strict vaccination standards. The last known natural case occurred in 1977in Somalia (WHO).

By 1980, smallpox was completely wiped out, although government and health agencies still have stashes of smallpox virus for research purposes. Currently, only those who are at a high risk of exposure to smallpox receive the vaccine. Due to the high risk of side effects, it is not available to the public.

Types of Smallpox

There were two common and two rare forms of smallpox. The two major forms were known as variola minor and variola major.

Variola minor was a less fatal type of smallpox. Only one percent of those infected died. However, it was less common than variola major.

Ninety percent of smallpox cases were Variola major. Historically, this type of smallpox killed 30 percent of those infected.

The two rare forms of smallpox were known as hemorrhagic and malignant. Both of these rare forms of smallpox carried an almost 100 percent fatality rate.

Hemorrhagic smallpox caused organs to leak blood into the mucous membranes and skin.

Malignant smallpox lesions did not develop into pustules or pus filled bumps on the skin. Instead, they remained soft and flat throughout the entire illness.

What Are the Symptoms of Smallpox?

Historical accounts show that when someone was infected with the smallpox virus, they had no symptoms between seven and 17 days. However, once the incubation period (or virus development phase) was over, the following flu-like symptoms occurred:

  • high fever
  • chills
  • malaise
  • headache
  • severe back pain
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting

These symptoms would go away within two to three days. Then the patient would feel better. However, just as the patient started to feel better, a rash would appear. The rash started on the face and then spread to the hands, forearms, and the main part of the body. The person would be highly contagious until the rash disappeared.

Within two days of appearance, the rash would develop into abscesses that filled with fluid and pus. The abscesses would break open and scab over. The scabs would eventually fall off, leaving pit mark scars. Until the scabs fell off, the person remained contagious.

How Do You Catch Smallpox?

One of the reasons smallpox was so dangerous and deadly is because it’s an airborne disease. Airborne diseases tend to spread fast.

Coughing, sneezing, or direct contact with any bodily fluids could spread the smallpox virus. In addition, sharing contaminated clothing or bedding could lead to infection.

Treatment for Smallpox

There is no cure for the smallpox virus. As a result of worldwide, repeated vaccination programs, the variola virus (smallpox) has been completely eradicated. The only people considered to be at risk for smallpox are researchers who work with it in a laboratory setting.

In the unlikely event that an exposure to the smallpox virus occurs, vaccination within one to three days can keep the illness from being so severe. In addition, antibiotics can help to reduce the bacterial infections associated with the virus.

Written by: Shannon Johnson
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP
Published: Aug 7, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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