Smallpox: The World’s First Eradicated Disease

Smallpox: The World's First Eradicated Disease

Smallpox: The World’s First Eradicated Disease


Smallpox: The World's First Eradicated Disease.

As medicine advances, there are fewer infectious disease outbreaks, or epidemics. Smallpox came to North America in the 1600s. People had symptoms of high fever, chills, severe back pain, and rashes. Starting from the Northeast, smallpox wiped out entire Native American tribes. Over 70 percent of the Native American population dropped. In 1721, 844 of the 5,889 Bostonians who had smallpox died from it.

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 United States in 1949 and due to worldwide vaccination programs, this disease has been completely eradicated. Smallpox is also known as variola.

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Overall, smallpox caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people before it was eradicated, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at South Nassau Communities Hospital in New York.

Despite its devastating impact on the human population, smallpox is no longer considered a threat, thanks to a worldwide immunization effort that eradicated the disease by 1977. Smallpox is the only disease known to humanity that has been completely eradicated.


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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 in Somalia.

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.

Smallpox: The World's First Eradicated Disease
Illustration of smallpox virus

Symptoms of Smallpox’s

There are four different types of the virus, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the symptoms they cause vary in severity.

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:

  • high fever
  • chills
  • 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.

The virus is transmitted through the air in moisture droplets spread by sneezing, coughing and talking. It can also be spread by touching things that an infected person has touched, although catching the virus that way isn’t as common.

Types of Smallpox

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 CDC estimates that 90 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 a very high fatality rate. [What Is E. Coli? Causes And Symptoms]

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.

Smallpox’s Global Impact

An estimated 300 million people around the world died from smallpox in the 20th century, according to a report by the BBC. This is because smallpox has a fatality rate of around 30% in unvaccinated individuals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Historically, the virus was most dangerous to women who were pregnant or people who had immune disorders.

Though many of the people who contracted smallpox survived, they did not come away unscathed. The rashes left behind severe scars, and some patients became blind from the sickness.

Smallpox’s Eradication and Prevention

The first smallpox immunization was created by Edward Jenner in 1796. But it took more than 200 years and a worldwide vaccination program to eradicate the disease. The last known naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed on Oct. 26, 1977, in Merka, Somalia, according to the CDC. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.

Though the U.S. discontinued smallpox immunization in 1972, immunization remains mandatory for U.S. military personnel deployed to smallpox-prone areas.

“Only two WHO reference labs are authorized to maintain stocks of variola virus: one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the other at a Russian state laboratory in Koltsovo,” Leggiadro said. “However, additional variola isolates, either long held unreported or acquired through security breaches, may also exist.” All legal research is overseen by the Advisory Committee for Variola Virus Research, according to the WHO.

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.

Anyone who may have come in contact with the potentially infected person is also given the vaccine. The vaccine can prevent or lessen the effects of the virus if it is administered within four days of exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Stockpiles of smallpox vaccines are stored around the world to respond to an epidemic, if that ever occurs. In the U.S., the Strategic National Stockpile is an organization run by the government that stores supplies and pharmaceuticals in case of a national health emergency.

Additional resources:

  • Learn more about ongoing smallpox research from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
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