Encyclopedia > Smallpox

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Smallpox (also known by the Latin names Variola or Variola vera) is a virus causing a very contagious and highly deadly disease in humans. It is estimated that smallpox is 20-60% fatal, while many survivors are left blind and scars from smallpox are nearly universal. Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300-500 million deaths in the 20th century, and as recently as 1967, smallpox killed two million people in a single year.

After successful vaccination campaigns, smallpox is now thought to be extinct in the wild, though cultures are kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Russian authorities. In the 1970s, most nations discontinued smallpox vaccination because such vaccinations have a small possibility (1 case in one million) of serious or even fatal side effects. Nonetheless, after the 2001 anthrax attacks took place in the United States, concerns about smallpox have resurfaced as a possible agent for bioterrorism. As a result, there has been increased concern about the availability of vaccine stocks. Moreover, President of the United States George W. Bush has ordered all military personnel to be vaccinated against smallpox and has implemented a voluntary program for vaccinating emergency medical personnel who would likely be the first people to respond in case of a bioterrorist attack.

Famous victims who died from the disease include Mary II of England, Louis XV of France and Peter II of Russia. Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, survived the disease but was scarred by it.

Smallpox victim

After first contacts with Europeans, the death of a large part of the native population of the New World was caused by European-transmitted diseases. Smallpox was the chief culprit. On at least one occasion, germ warfare using smallpox infected blankets was used against Native Americans by the British army.

In 1796, Edward Jenner became the first scientist to develop a smallpox vaccine by using cowpox fluid. His theory was too radical for the scientific establishment and he had to pay to publish his findings privately. After independent confirmation, the practice of vaccination against smallpox spread quickly and national laws requiring vaccination began appearing as soon as 1805. The last case of wild smallpox occurred on September 11, 1977. One last victim was claimed by the disease in the UK in September 1978, when Janet Parker, a photographer in the University of Birmingham Medical School, contracted the disease and died. There was a research project working on smallpox in the building at the time, though the exact route by which Ms. Parker became infected was never fully elucidated.

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