In the twentieth century, about 300 million people across the world died from one disease in particular. If you were lucky enough to survive, scars disfigured you or disabled you or both. Many of those scars were on the face. Which disease? It was the variola virus, more commonly called smallpox. It’s one deadly virus that won’t kill you or your loved ones or neighbors today.
No one knows where smallpox came from exactly. We can only speculate when it began and our guesses range from 12,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago.
The earliest evidence for the disease comes from the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V, who died in 1157 B.C. His mummified remains show telltale pockmarks on his skin.
In other words, it had been around a long time. Spread from person-to-person, it killed 3 out of 10 people who caught it.
Symptoms appeared 2-14 days after exposure. High fever, head and body aches, and sometimes vomiting appeared first and lasted two to three days.
The next four days, the fever continued, and small red spots appeared on the tongue and mouth. The spots turned into sores, broke open, and spread all over the mouth and throat. This stage was highly contagious. Over the next 24 hours, the rash appeared on face, and quickly spread until the rash covered the entire body. The fever often went down, and the patient felt better.
Four days later, the skin rash turned into sores fill with a thick, cloudy fluid. The fever often came back and remained high.For the next five days, the sores become firm. Then crusts formed around them. By the end of the second week, all the sores had scabbed over and the fever subsided. Over the next six days, if the patient survived, the sores scabbed over. Patients remained contagious until all the scabs fall off, leaving pocked scars.
If you aren’t too squeamish, you can see pictures of the rash and a man with scars and blindness.
Deaths by Smallpox
Smallpox involved multiple organs and often overwhelmed the body, resulting in death. Two variants of the disease, flat and hemorrhagic Smallpox, the disease appeared earlier and progressed rapidly. Although rare, these variants were usually fatal.
Fighting the Disease
According to the video above, treatment of smallpox began in 1022 A.D. when a Chinese nun tried variolation. It was the first attempt to stop the disease. It helped, but not enough.
In 1796, Edward Jenner diagnosed a dairymaid, Sarah Nelmes, with cowpox. And as you probably learned in school, he developed the first successful vaccination for smallpox. (See the illustration below or listen to the video for how.) But not enough people received the vaccine. And millions still died of the disease.
In 1958, vaccinations contained the disease in Russia. The Russian government called for global containment of the disease. In the height of the cold war between Russia and the United States of America, the two governments cooperated for a common goal: to stop people from spreading and dying from smallpox.
Two nations, sworn enemies, set aside politics because people were dying.
By the 1960s, they had reduced smallpox outbreaks, but it remained endemic in Africa and Asia.
In 1967, WHO launched a ten-year initiative to eradicate smallpox. Countries across the globe worked together. A massive vaccination effort began. They entered war zones, displacement camps and worked tirelessly to trace contacts, educate the public, and vaccinate as many people as possible.
On May 8, 1980 the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated.
Are You Paying Attention?
At more than 4 million deaths in twenty months, COVID hasn’t reached the magnitude of smallpox yet. Or has it? Multiply that by 100 years.
We can stop COVID deaths if all who physically can get the vaccination do. The science of vaccinations is real. It works.
How do I know all this? I became a nurse in the 1970s. The disease was rare in the U.S.A. but it cropped up once in a while.
In the 1980s, Rob Chilson and I researched the disease and wrote The White Box series of novellas about future medicine and the nightmare of smallpox returning. Back then, people remembered family members who’d died from the disease. Or they knew someone with the scars of the disease. Or they had the small vaccination scar on their arm.
In the ’80’s, we still had compassion for anyone who suffered smallpox. In the 1980s, both Mr. Chilson and I remembered the disease even though we hadn’t had it ourselves. We’d both had our vaccinations.
Your Relatives Protected You
Today, the smallpox virus only exists in two secure laboratory facilities in the U.S. and Russia.
If you have no medical condition that prevents you from safely receiving the vaccine, and you CHOOSE not to get the vaccine. You are endangering people’s lives. The lives of your loved ones. Your friends and neighbors.
Smallpox is one deadly disease that won’t kill you because your relatives protected you by getting vaccinated. Today COVID might kill you or a family member who hasn’t even been born yet. If you get COVID and it doesn’t kill you, you may have lifelong disabilities after you recover. Don’t risk it. Put aside your politics, your conspiracy theories, and your fears. The life you save could be your own or your great, great grandchild.
The Keep Out Sign: National Library of Medicine – History of Medicine, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Graph representation of deaths by smallpox: Our World In Data, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Jenner’s progression developing the vaccine: Srcyr16, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Researchers injecting smallpox into eggs: Dr. Stan Foster, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons