The eradication of smallpox (a variola virus) is considered one of the world’s major successes in the battling of infectious diseases. The origin of smallpox is unknown – though scientists believe that it has its roots in Africa – and it is considered the most dangerous of the pox viruses. However, other similar diseases include Chicken Pox, Monkeypox, Cowpox, and Shingles.
The last known case of smallpox occured Somalia in 1977, after a 10-year-long campaign by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control launched to eradicate the virus. It is now held only for the possibility of another outbreak, since the vaccine is a low-concentration form of the actual virus.
Smallpox, like the other pox viruses, is transferred through the air via “respiratory droplets,” which are spread by infected persons when they sneeze or cough. The virus enters the system through the respiratory system, then spreads to the lymph nodes, and finally to the blood stream. The incubation period for the disease is approximately twelve days, which means that you are infected for nearly two weeks before symptoms begin to appear.
Initial symptoms are comparable to that of the flu, and include a high fever, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, and sometimes vomoting. After two-to-four days, it progresses into a bumpy rash, then to blisters (or vesicles), and finally to round pustules that must scab and fall off before a person is no longer contagious. There is no known treatment for smallpox, which means that a person will either die, or the virus will run its course. In untreated victims, the mortality rate is at least 30%. Rashes begin on the face and mouth, then spread to the extremities, and finally to the trunk.
Should smallpox ever appear naturally again, even in one case, it will be considered a Category A agent by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and will be declared a public emergency. Smallpox is one of the most feared diseases of our time, and caused roughly one million deaths during its various epidemics.
The only positive thing about smallpox is that it is a rapidly spreading disease. Eventually, providing that the outbreak is quarantined, the disease will “burn out” because it will run out of hosts. Once a survivor rids himself of the disease, he is immune to the virus forever, meaning that he cannot become re-infected.
Smallpox can survive outside the body for a period of up to a week. If, for example, sheets, blankets, or clothes used by an infected person are not cleaned, the virus remains on the object and can infect anyone who touches it.
Named after the Old English word “gican,” meaning to itch, Chicken Pox is one of the most universal diseases, but not nearly as threatening as smallpox. Chicken Pox occurs most frequently in children fourteen years of age or younger (90% of all recorded cases), and typically presents itself in the spring, as it prefers temperate climates.
Chicken Pox presents itself as a rash at first, which then becomes lesions all over the face and body. Unlike smallpox, Chicken Pox usually begins on the trunk – the stomach, for instance – and spreads to the extremities and face after one-to-two days. Early symptoms might include headaches, fatigue, and muscle soreness.
The number of lesions varies radically depending on the case, though most children suffer between one and three hundred lesions. Older victims will develop more lesions, typically, and blisters may spread to the eyelids, the tongue, and other body cavities.
Monkeypox is a more rare pox virus, and is a member of the orthopox viral group. Chicken Pox is also an orthopox, but it is a herpesvirus, which monkeypox is not.
The first recorded case of Monkeypox occured in laboratory monkeys in 1958. It is most commonly found in the rainforests of Africa, and is thought to be naturally hosted by squirrels and other rodents. The first human case was in 1970, and the first case in the United States occurred in 2003 in both prairie dogs and humans.
Symptoms for monkeypox are similar to that of Chicken Pox, and last from two to four weeks. In Africa, where most of the cases have been recorded, the mortality rate is approximately 10%.
Pox viruses are uncomfortable, and often fatal. They have been the cause of much suffering throughout human history, but with the eradication of smallpox, hope is now restored. Scientists are still working on cures for each of the pox viruses, though little new research has proven helpful.
As far as a terroristic threat, smallpox only survives approximately twenty-four hours when distributed through aerosol cans. This leads us to believe that the pox virus cannot be used effectively through bioterrorism, and though vaccines are not available to the public today, then can be recreated using stores of the virus in laboratories. This is currently a public issue because many scientists are advocating the complete destruction of the virus, which would mean that we would have nothing to vaccinate with should another naturally-occuring epidemic occur.