Smallpox? Bigpox more like.

Often described as the most devastating disease in human history, you’d think they’d have renamed it bigpox by now.

There have been no known naturally acquired cases of el pox since 1977, the eradication of which is seen as one of the greatest modern medical achievements (That and those ‘flesh coloured’ cold sore disks that stand out like peach targets). All that exists of the virulent bugger are samples kept by both the USA and Russia and it’s these samples that are currently causing controversy.

The World Health Organization [WHO] meet during May and will decide the fate of these samples. Should all known traces be incinerated to avoid a potential accidental release, as happened in 1978 causing a single death, or should the samples be preserved, in order that scientists can study them more and get as much information as possible in therefore preventing a potential future epidemic?

Smallpox - Bloody unpleasant.

In an excerpt from his book Smallpox: Death of a Disease, published by Prometheus Books, author and previous director of the campaign to eradicate smallpox, Dr DA Henderson says, “If it’s destroyed, the statement is made that after this date, any scientists, any lab, any country that has that smallpox virus is guilty of crimes against humanity.”

Others feel that the type of person capable of wilfully releasing the virus – ie terrorists – will not be put off by the ‘crime against humanity’ label for possessing it and it might actually make the virus more attractive to them.  They argue, in fact, that without the live virus, scientists will be unable to prepare for such an event which creates a paradox.

“It would be very important to have something on the shelf that would help prevent or treat an epidemic, whether a virus was introduced by a terrorist or Mother Nature,” according to chief scientific officer of the pharmaceutical company SIGA, Dennis Hruby. SIGA is currently developing a treatment for smallpox. Hruby claims that humans are susceptible to other pox-like viruses and that it is highly likely that smallpox could re-emerge.

That’s so smallpox.

In 2002, scientists created a synthetic virus – worryingly by using instructions they’d found on the internet, meaning that even if it is destroyed, the virus could still be manufactured by some nutjob knob jockey terrorist. Or pharmaceutical company who could then develop a vaccine and sell it to the public at an extortionate price.

Did I type that or just think it?

[adsense]Eckard Wimmer, a professor at Stony Brook University in NYC, is in favor of destroying the virus outright, as he claims it would not be an easy virus to synthesize in a laboratory setting. There is no doubt a recipe for it somewhere on the internet. Look harder Wimmer. Look harder.

“Not only would you have to have experience, you have to have extensive laboratory space, high containment so it would not contaminate the surroundings, and expensive instruments; all of this poses a barrier for malicious intent,” according to Wimmer. “If a government wanted to do that, they would have the resources. But we in the scientific community hope that this will not happen, because in a sense somebody who would release the virus would ultimately hurt him or herself, because the virus will come back. The people who synthesize it may be protected, but their relatives, their friends and the community in which they live, the state in which they live, will not be protected.”

It is said that smallpox has caused more human deaths across the centuries than any other virus. It is a virus unique to human beings, and given our overpopulation now it means that an outbreak could in theory wipe us out entirely, leaving other less virulent species to inhabit the earth without being tortured, poisoned, or hit by cars etc. Doesn’t sound like such a bad thing does it? Yeah we’d miss the finale of We’ve got absolutely no celebrity talent idol, get us out of here but at least we wouldn’t have to go to work, right?

Sadly as a species I think we’ve probably already irrevocably damaged the planet. Ho hum. And I don’t really want to die yet. Who would stop my dog from being stolen by street beggars, tortured by sadists or hit by a car…  Oh, now I get it.

Leave a comment with your thoughts on Smallpox and the rise of stupidity.

Read about the return of Smallpox in House; Epstein-Barr Virus; Rubeola; HIV and AIDS; and the theory of real life zombies.

images: bbc.co.uk; scienceblogs.com