Did you know that smallpox used to be widespread, inflicting illness and death in different parts of the world? The primary victims are children and young adults. Being very contagious, it was easy for the infection to spread within the family and to other people they interact with. At that time, people received vaccine to fight this disease. However, the U.S. government ordered the stop of smallpox vaccine in 1972 after a massive program of the World Health Organization (WHO) wiped out all known smallpox-causing viruses except for some samples that are preserved for the purpose of government research.
Eight years later, the WHO recommended other countries to stop giving smallpox vaccine. Researchers have debated for a long time whether to continue preserving those viruses or finally destroy all of them once and for all. Some are concerned about the possibility of terrorist groups acquiring these viruses and making use of them for terrorist attacks. This concern is not completely unfounded since the virus can be easily spread in aerosol form. Before you panic about a smallpox terrorist attack, arm yourself with sufficient knowledge about this.
What is smallpox?
Smallpox is a serious infection caused by the variola virus. It is named as such because there are pus-filled blisters that develop during the course of illness. Despite the similarity of names, smallpox and chickenpox are not at all related. But it is safe to say that chickenpox is a much milder disease. It's also caused by an entirely different virus.
What are the types of smallpox?
Smallpox comes in two types: variola major and variola minor. The first one is a life-threatening viral infection that occurs mostly in people who did not receive vaccine. The other is the milder version that only rarely causes death.
Who are at risk?
Since almost all variola virus has been wiped out in the 1970s, you'll only be at risk of this viral infection if you work in the laboratory and you handle this virus. But there is only very little chance of obtaining the infection through this route since high safety standards are always being stringently followed in laboratory settings. Another risk factor is if you happen to be in the location where the virus is released as a weapon of terrorism. Like the first risk factor, there is only small likelihood that this will ever happen since the virus is kept in tight security in the laboratory.
How is smallpox spread?
This infection is very contagious. It can spread through saliva droplets when a person talks, sneezes or coughs. It can also be passed from one person to another during close contact. Moreover, the virus can be spread through clothing, bed sheets, and other everyday objects. It's most contagious during the first week after a person has been infection and will continue to be so until the rash scabs fall off.
How is it diagnosed and what are the symptoms?
A doctor will easily recognize the disease because of the distinctive rash that develops when a person has this viral infection. The rash turns into skin blisters that are filled with fluid and has a layer of crust on top. Smallpox rashes look a lot different from those that come out when a person has chickenpox. Other than these, an infected person will have fever, headache, backache and general feeling of illness.
How is this prevented and treated?
A vaccine is given to prevent infection against smallpox. However, as mentioned earlier, this vaccine is not recommended anymore. But it gives you peace of mind knowing that there's a supply in case an outbreak occurs. There are no medications that can treat this disease but scientists are working on developing a medicine for it.