What's Smallpox? Are We at Risk?

Smallpox Is Gone But Could Come Back as Bioterrorism

Smallpox virus, illustration
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Smallpox, or the variola virus, causes fever and progressive skin rash. Smallpox is an acute and contagious disease that can sometimes kill. Smallpox causes fever and a distinctive progressive skin rash.

In 1980, the smallpox virus was declared eradicated to much fanfare following worldwide vaccination programs. However, the use of smallpox as a weapon of bioterrorism continues to be a concern of the U.S. government.

What Are Some Smallpox Symptoms?

Smallpox starts with high fever, head and body aches as well as vomiting. A rash then breaks out, which begins as raised bumps and progresses to pus-filled lesions. These lesions scab after 3 weeks and fall off thus leaving a scar. In addition to scars--particularly to the face--smallpox can also cause blindness.

Is Smallpox Deadly?

Most people with smallpox recover; however, death occurs in 30% of people infected.

What Could a Smallpox Attack Entail?

Just like anthrax, plague, botulism and viral hemorrhagic fevers, the CDC classifies smallpox as a Category A agent. Category A agents are most concerning among potential threats to the general public and have the potential for widespread dissemination, or spread.

Is There a Vaccine for Smallpox?

Yes, a vaccine exists to treat smallpox. However, this vaccine isn't generally available, and if you go to your physician's office and ask for it, you won't receive it.

In 1949, the last American became infected with smallpox. In 1977, the last person in the world (a Somalian) developed smallpox. After smallpox was eradicated from the world, physicians and public health officials stopped vaccinating for the disease.

Please rest assured that in the case of a smallpox bioterrorism attack, the CDC claims that there is a response plan in place and enough vaccine to give to vaccinate every American.

How Is the Smallpox Vaccine Administered?

Unlike most vaccinations, the smallpox vaccine isn't administered using a hypodermic needle. Instead, a two-pronged needle is dipped in the smallpox vaccine and then introduced into the upper arms by means of a prick. The pricked area becomes sore. After a week, the pricked area then forms a pus-filled blister which eventually scabs and then scars. The formation of this pus-filled blister indicates that the vaccination is working.

How Do People Get Smallpox?

People usually get smallpox after lengthened face-to-face contact. Smallpox is most contagious during the rash phase, or between 1 and 3 weeks post-infection. A person can also catch smallpox via contact with bodily fluids or by fomite exposure (bedding and other inanimate objects exposed to the virus). In very close quarters, smallpox can spread in the air. Smallpox is not carried by a vector (insect). Instead, humans are the only host of this virus.

How's Smallpox Treated?

No specific treatment or cure exists to treat smallpox, Instead, in the case of an outbreak, the anticipated treatment would be smallpox vaccination, antiviral medications and symptomatic treatment for those infected.

Because people are no longer vaccinated for smallpox, one case of smallpox is considered a public health emergency. Any case of suspected smallpox should be immediately reported to the public health authorities

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