Smallpox: The Multi-Millennium Scourge
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines scourge as a cause of wide or great affliction. Scourge has been use synonymously to describe the immense devastation the smallpox disease has had on mankind throughout history. Smallpox once plagued the entire world until the primitive inoculation methods used in southwest Asia (injecting puss and inhaling grounded scabs) proved to be highly effective with the recovery of infected people, thus reducing the overall mortality rate and preventing the further spread of the disease. Until the inoculation methods became popular in the mid 17th century, smallpox had a mortality rate of approximately 30%, which by some estimates totaled nearly 300 million deaths worldwide (The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 2011). The very last diagnosis of smallpox in the U.S. occurred in 1949 and worldwide in 1977.
The smallpox disease is caused by a deadly viral infection from the variola major virus. Human beings are the virus only host; neither animals nor insects are able to carry the virus. A similar virus called variola minor causes alastrim—a less pernicious form of smallpox. There is evidence that suggests smallpox first emerged in Mesopotamia at some point during the 5th millennium (Britannica, 2013), and with continued international exploration to and from the host nation, the virus quickly became widespread on every continent. Smallpox infection occurs through virus inhalation, contact with contaminated saliva (absorption), or regular contact with contaminated materials (absorption). Once a person has been infected with variola major, the virus incubates for up to 14 days where it slows spreads through bone marrow, blood vessels, and the spleen. Suddenly, the infected person experiences a high fever, body aches, vomiting, and ultimately rash over all the body. The rash produces scabs and during this period the victim is extremely contagious to everyone. However, once all the scabs have fallen off the person is no longer considered contagious. The disease is especially problematic; because once these symptoms become apparent, there is little medical treatment available. The infected person is isolated from the general public and provided medical treatment, but all treatment at this stage of the infection is solely to prevent secondary infections.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considered smallpox to be eradicated in 1980. Nine years earlier, in 1971, the U.S. had already eliminated routine smallpox vaccinations. However, due to recent terrorist threats and attacks, including the tragedies on September 1, 2011, smallpox vaccinations were provided to most military, healthcare, and emergency personnel. Currently, the U.S. and Russia are the only countries that maintain large stockpiles of smallpox vaccinations, mainly due to Russia’s known use of the disease as part of its biological weapons program. The vaccination is the only effective treatment of the disease....