Welcome back to The Spookiest Sicknesses! This week, we are covering a disease that has been around for a very long time. In fact, it’s so old, that it’s believed that mummies from ancient Egypt may have had this disease! But, this haunting tale has an incredible ending. Hold on to your witch hats and broomsticks, this week we are flying into SMALLPOX!
HOW IT BEGAN
Unlike with the COVID-19 pandemic, the starting part of smallpox is actually difficult to find. A big reason is that it has existed for such a long time. Researchers have found rashes on mummies from ancient Egypt that look a lot like smallpox. If these rashes are actually from smallpox, it means that this virus has been around for at least 3,000 years! Jumping forward a few hundred years or so to the 4th Century, China was the first civilization to write down a description of smallpox. Eventually, this disease began to grow and spread across the world.
HOW IT WORKS
Just like COVID-19, smallpox is a virus. To be specific, it’s caused by the variola virus. This disease is very hard on people who catch it. The incubation period, which means the time it takes from coming into contact with the disease to the first time that symptoms start to show up, ranges anywhere from 7 days to 17 days.
It has mild symptoms, like fever and fatigue (tiredness). But it can also cause more extreme symptoms, making this disease a very notable in history. People affected by smallpox developed a rash on their face, arms, and legs. This rash would eventually fill up with a clear fluid. As time progressed, the fluid would change into pus, a thick fluid that is made of dead white blood cells, tissues, and microorganisms (in this case the smallpox virus). The rash would then dry up and flake off. The smallpox virus is contagious and spreads by person-to-person contact of bodily fluids, like blood, spit, and pus.
Smallpox is most infectious during the first week of the disease when the symptoms are the worst. But, a person could still pass the disease to others if the dried rashes are still present. Unlike many diseases, smallpox was slow to spread, especially when compared to viruses like COVID-19, chickenpox, and measles.
HOW WAS IT DEFEATED
Smallpox has been eradicated from existence, meaning it no longer exists in nature. This is a serious moment in health science history! This moment in history was not easy to achieve. It took several decades of hard work and research. At the earliest moments in this outstanding part of history, vaccinations did not exist. Before vaccinations, some people would go through a process known as variolation (make note that this is similar to the variola virus).
People would attempt to control the spread of smallpox by scratching skin cells from the sores and rashes of infected people into their arms or even breathing it in. This worked fairly well but it wasn’t the most effective method.
In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner, an English doctor, made the discovery that people who were exposed to a disease called cowpox were less likely to be affected by smallpox. Using the variolation process described earlier, Dr. Jenner tested his hypothesis by using variolation of cowpox sores into his a research patient (the 9-year old son of his gardener).
This patient was then exposed to smallpox on multiple occasions, but he never got sick with smallpox.
As time went by, researchers began to make vaccines in laboratories, making them safer to use and much more effective at preventing sickness.
Jumping ahead to the 1960s, the World Health Organization (WHO) began to actively urge the world to get vaccinated to try and eliminate the smallpox virus, and this effort was incredibly effective.
The World Health Assembly made the official announcement that smallpox was eradicated on May 8, 1980. The defeat of a disease was, and still is, one of the most significant moments in the history of public health and medicine because it is the only disease in human history to be completely eradicated. No other disease that affects humans has been defeated to this level.
Now it’s time for our inspired readers, like you, to test your knowledge on creating a world without sicknesses with the Mini-Test below. Click on the arrows to reveal the answers.
Question: How long is the incubation period for smallpox? ( time between exposure to noticing symptoms)
Answer: 7-17 Days
Question: Who was the doctor who discovered the first smallpox vaccination?
Answer: Dr. Edward Jenner
Question: How old is the smallpox virus?
Answer: Around 3,000 years old
Question: In what year was smallpox officially eradicated (defeated)?
Answer: May 8, 1980
Question: How many human diseases have been eradicated?
Answer: Only 1, smallpox
Thank you all for visiting us on this edition of Spookiest Sicknesses! Come back next time for even more thrilling tales!