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Holding onto the world's deadliest disease

Child with smallpox taken in Bangledesh in 1973.
CDC (U.S. federal government). The image is in the public domain.

Smallpox may have been eradicated more than 30 years ago, but a number of scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) do not feel it is time yet to destroy the last two remaining (known) stockpiles of the deadly virus but there are two known stockpiles, one located in the US and the other in Russia. The fear is that it might return, especially in this day and age of superbugs, and if, so, it could be more deadlier than ever.

“Despite the fact that we now have a whole new generation of smallpox vaccine, and two long-sought antiviral treatments in the pipeline, there is still more to be done in improving protections,” stated Dr, Inger Damon, the CDC’s poxvirus chief.

Her concerns were echoed by Health and Human Services assistant secretary for global affairs Jimmy Kolker, who added “We now aren’t sure that our countermeasures (including recent advances in sythetic biology which means that we could possibly create a version of the smallpox vaccine from scratch) are going to be as effective as we thought even 5 years ago.”

Scientists believe that smallpox (aka the red plague) most likely emerged in humans about 10,000 BC., although the first acrcheological evidence seems to be a “pustular rash” found on Pharoah Ramese V’s mummy. Considered to be one of the deadliest diseases in history, smallpox was responsible for approximately 400,000 people throughout Europe each year (including 5 ruling monarchs) during the later part of the 1700’s, and responsible for 1/3 of all cases of blindness (due to ulcerations in the cornea). It was also the cause of nearly 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century, including 2 million as recently as 1967. WHO finally certified its eradication twelve years later in1979.

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