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Smallpox is an extremely contagious and deadly virus for which there is no known cure. The last known case occurred in the United States 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.
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. The World Health Organization (WHO) implemented a strict vaccination standard in order to slow the infection rate. The last known natural case occurred in 1977 in Somalia.
By 1980, the WHO declared that smallpox had been completely eradicated, although government and health agencies still have stashes of smallpox virus for research purposes.
People no longer receive routine smallpox vaccinations. The smallpox vaccine can have potentially fatal side effects, so only the people who are at high risk of exposure get the vaccine.
Historical accounts show that when someone was infected with the smallpox virus, they had no symptoms for between seven and 17 days. However, once the incubation period (or virus development phase) was over, the following flu-like symptoms occurred:
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.
There were two common and two rare forms of smallpox. The two common forms were known as variola minor and variola major.
Variola minor was a less fatal type of smallpox. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that only 1 percent of those infected died. However, it was less common than variola major.
The two rare forms of smallpox were known as hemorrhagic and malignant. Both of these rare forms of smallpox carried a very high 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.
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.
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
Medically reviewed on: Jan 04, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI
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