By 1979 the world was free of smallpox, a horrendously infectious disease which was unique to humans and caused death, blindness and disfigurement in its victims.
Last night’s episode of House, featuring British actor and former comedian Hugh Laurie, reintroduced smallpox to the world and has led to questions over whether we have seen the last of this awful disease or not.
Smallpox (also referred to as alastrim, cottonpox, milkpox, whitepox, and Cuban itch) had two variations, Variola major and Variola minor, which were named after the Latin varius (spotted), and varus (pimple). The disease was first named “smallpox” in 15th century Europe so that it could be distinguished from its sibling disease, the great pox or Syphilis as it is better known.
Smallpox can be identified by a characteristic rash which later develops into fluid filled blisters, usually heavily gathered around the limbs more than the torso. It manifests in small blood vessels in the skin and around the mouth and throat.
Variola major was the more serious case of the two and had a mortality rate of up to 35%. Variola minor was a milder strain which killed no more than 1% of its victims.
Another form of smallpox was black pox or hemorrhagic smallpox, which could not be as easily identified as it did not have the blisters on the skin. Instead it caused the victim to bleed heavily into their skin cells making them appear bruised. Black pox was almost always fatal.
During the 20th century alone smallpox claimed between 300 and 500 million lives, with the 1950’s seeing the largest amount of cases, some 50 million each year. A series of ring vaccinations and quarantines led to the successful eradication of smallpox and in 1979 the World Health Organisation declared the disease as extinct. They continued to store samples of the disease at laboratories and as yet, and despite the threat the disease carries, they have not destroyed them.
Some believe that military organisations are trying to develop smallpox as a biological weapon which may seem paranoid but not completely unbelievable given that the British admitted their intentions to do the same during the Siege of Fort Pitt in 1754. The Russians had a similar episode in 1947 when scientists working on a hybrid of smallpox unwittingly brought it back to the mainland via plankton samples, killing several staff and children as a result.
Please let us know your thoughts on smallpox, or conspiracies about weaponising smallpox by leaving a comment.
images: learnnc.com, randomhouse.com