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April 2010 Chirurgeon's Message

Small Pox a Disease of Yester Years

Smallpox was a highly contagious viral disease that killed up to half of those infected and seriously maimed survivors through severe scarring of the skin with deep pock marks, blindness and infertility. However, those who did survive enjoyed protective immunity from further infection for the rest of their lives. The smallpox virus or variola - its scientific name - exists in more than one form, some producing more severe illness than others.

The history of smallpox extends into pre-history. The disease likely emerged in human populations about 10,000 years Before the Common Era. The earliest credible evidence of smallpox is found in the Egyptian mummies of persons who died some 3000 years ago. The first description of smallpox in Europe occurred in 581, when Bishop Gregory of Tours provided an eyewitness account describing the characteristic symptoms of smallpox. Waves of epidemics wiped out large rural populations. Around 400 AD, an Indian medical book recorded a disease marked by pustules and boils, saying "the pustules are red, yellow, and white and they are accompanied by burning pain ... the skin seems studded with grains of rice." The Indian epidemic was thought to be punishment from a god, and the survivors created a goddess, Sitala, as the anthropomorphic personification of the disease. Smallpox was thus regarded as possession by Sitala. In Hinduism the goddess Sitala both causes and cures high fever, rashes, hot flashes and pustules. All of these are symptoms of smallpox.

Generally, direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact is required to spread smallpox from one person to another. Smallpox also can be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects such as bedding or clothing. Rarely, smallpox has been spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains. Humans are the only natural hosts of variola. Smallpox is not known to be transmitted by insects or animals. There is no known treatment of smallpox. Smallpox can be prevented with vaccination.

During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300-500 million deaths. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease and that two million died in that year. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in December 1979. To this day, smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated.

THL Blase di Angelo
Kingdom Chirurgeon


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