Normally when an organism goes the way of the dodo it’s a sad day in history. However, today’s #HistoryMonday features an organism that nobody will miss thanks to its dangerous effects on humans for centuries until it met its own mortality.
On this day in 1979, a commission of scientists issued a statement of their findings that smallpox had been eradicated. The disease’s last naturally occurring case was diagnosed just two years earlier, which prompted the scientists’ announcement.
Smallpox or some form of the disease existed for much of human history extending from BCE to the Common Era. The virus is caused by one of two variants, Variola major or Variola minior. The virus was responsible for nearly a 30 percent risk of fatality for those infected. Smallpox is the only infectious disease afflicting humans that has officially been eradicated.
Prevention of the disease began late in the 16th Century in China which utilized inoculation. This technique would eventually spread to the West during the 18th Century and is credited for the Continental Army’s survival during the harsh winter at Valley Forge during the American Revolution. Inoculation involves usage of a weak strain of the virus being introduced to patients to trigger the immune system to create antibodies and establish immunity to the disease.
Eventually, vaccines that used a similar disease that affected cattle but was safe for humans helped the eradication of the Smallpox virus. By using this vaccine along with many other vaccines in the middle of the 20th Century by government intervention, many dangerous diseases have been kept in check.
The use of mass vaccination from the smallpox virus led to modern societies developing a near-natural immunity to the virus. Yet, tribes who have resisted outside contact would likely be susceptible to the virus as observed during the Colonial period in the Americas and Oceania.
Smallpox was at least a passive actor in helping Europeans to conquer Native American populations in the Americas as there is anecdotal and scientific evidence that the Native tribes had no prior history with the virus.
Historical accounts differ, but intentional use of smallpox scabs and infected materials being used by Europeans against native peoples has given the idea of using remaining strains of the disease as modes of biological warfare. After the last few cases of smallpox were discovered, the World Health Organization (WHO) ordered the remaining supplies of the virus be stored at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) of Russia. The WHO has attempted to install safeguards to keep the virus from being used for military purposes. Although some anti-biological warfare advocates suggest that all remaining strains be destroyed so nobody can use it for evil.
Other scientists working in epidemiology have demonstrated that similar viruses can be modified to affect humans like the smallpox virus but did so as part of an effort to research the history of the virus and create new vaccines.
Anti-vaccination efforts by concerned parents are also a concern if the disease’s is reactivated as well. If nefarious agents find ways to use the virus or a similar specimen as a biological weapon unvaccinated children and adults would be susceptible. This is why the supervision and restrictions from the WHO or CDC are important in keeping the virus in check.
Should the WHO destroy all the remaining smallpox strains?