“Although the chance to permanently destroy a deadly disease might seem desirable, on the 31 December 1993, a group of scientists won their struggle to have the dreaded smallpox virus saved from extermination. The virus had been due for permanent destruction, but medical researchers successfully argued that a small amount of the virus should be preserved in anticipation of future research needs.
Smallpox was a highly contagious viral disease that had afflicted humanity since its emergence around 10,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of a smallpox death was that of Egyptian ruler Ramses V, who lived some 3,000 years ago. It is thought to have developed into its most aggressive form over the last 2,000 years.
The disease existed in two distinct forms: variola major and the much less common variola minor. By far the most deadly form was variola major, which would prove fatal in around 30 percent of cases, although this was considerably higher in children and the elderly. variola minor had a less dramatic physical effect on the patient, and proved fatal in fewer than 1 percent of cases. In its more common form, the virus aggressively targeted the skin cells, resulting in hundreds of painful pus-filled lesions, especially on the face, hands, and feet. Lesions on the throat and mouth quickly impaired the respiratory system and often led to fatal bouts of pneumonia. Those who survived were often left with facial disfigurements due to scarring, and in many cases survivors lost their sight.
With no known cure, over the centuries smallpox proved responsible for millions of deaths. Throughout the 18th century, the disease was thought to kill around 400,000 people every year in Europe alone.
In the late 18th century, the English scientist Edward Jenner gave hope that the virus might be contained by demonstrating the effectiveness of administering a small dose of a similar virus carried in bovines. The process of inoculating with cowpox became known as vaccination, derived from the Latin word vacca, meaning “”cow.””
In Europe the number of cases began to fall towards the end of the 19th century as the practice of vaccination became more commonplace. However, in poorer parts of the world where vaccines were not routinely administered, the number of cases remained high, and as late as the 1950s, around 50 million cases of the disease were recorded annually.
The disease was finally brought under global control during the 1970s after a massive programme of inoculation was administered by the World Health Organisation. Through a process of quarantine and vaccination, the virus was gradually contained until it only existed in a few isolated pockets in the Horn of Africa. The last naturally occurring case was recorded in Somalia in October 1977, and the World Health Organization team responsible for the campaign was able to announce smallpox’s total eradication in 1979.
Following the campaign to save the virus from destruction, smallpox now exists only in secure laboratories in Russia and the United States. Some question the wisdom of preserving the virus, suggesting that the safest course would be total eradication, while others maintain that it might still prove useful in creating vaccines in the future.”
Credit: © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy
Caption: A cartoon satirising Edward Jenner’s small pox vaccination.