With luck, no pox redux
The world has held its collective breath since October 26, 1977 when the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.
The infectious disease has a long human history, much of it horrifying. It’s believed to have first emerged in humans roughly 12,000 years ago and has killed by the millions. It’s estimated that smallpox alone (there are two types: Variola major and Variola minor) is responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million people worldwide in the 20th century.
Robust and extensive vaccination programs in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually led to the virus’ official eradication in 1979. It’s one of just two infectious diseases to be eliminated by modern medicine. The other is rinderpest, a viral disease of cattle and other even-toed ungulates that was officially declared eradicated in 2011.
Given its deadly virulence – and its horrifying use as an occasional biological weapon – smallpox is broadly viewed as an extreme threat to human health, one to be avoided at all cost. The only known remaining stocks of smallpox virus exist in secret labs in the United States and Russia. They are controversial, to say the least, with many health experts urging the stocks’ destruction though some scientists counter that the virus should be preserved for study and potential use in the development of other vaccines and medicines. The debate is heated and ongoing.
But even as authorities fret about smallpox, nature has a way of introducing new concerns. Recently, two herdsmen in the country of Georgia were found to be infected with a previously unknown cousin of the variola virus, the cause of smallpox. Like variola, the new virus (which doesn’t yet have name) produces the multitudinous, painful blisters, a fever, swollen lymph nodes and weakness. Both men, fortunately, have recovered, but health officials worry that the emergence of this new virus may be evidence that smallpox like viruses – known as orthopoxviruses – are making a comeback as worldwide efforts to vaccinate against them have flagged and waned.