While our written records of the disastrous effects of the smallpox disease only extend back to the 15th century, there is compelling evidence that the disease emerged in human populations as far back as 10,000 years ago.
Indeed, upon close examination of the mummified remains of Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses V (who ruled c. 1150-1145 BCE), tell-tale pustular rashes can be seen, indicating that he most likely died from the disease. Since its emergence, both strains of the smallpox – variola major and variola minor – were left unchecked, leading up to an estimated 400,000 Europeans dying each year throughout the 18th century.
In 1796, however, the game changed. English physician Edward Jenner realised that individuals who caught the cowpox virus (an incredibly mild and non-deadly variant of the vaccinia virus) did not catch smallpox. Jenner then proceeded to test the theory in a series of cases that even included his own son, infecting each with the cowpox and then smallpox viruses. None of the test cases became infected with smallpox and, as a direct consequence, the first successful vaccine in the world was created.
Here, We explores smallpox, its vaccine and the history of its effects, as well as its eventual eradication.
The incubation period for smallpox is roughly 12 days. After this, those infected experience fever, muscle pain, headaches, nausea and backache. These symptoms are then followed by the disease’s characteristic pimpled rash across the sufferer’s skin, which emerges first on the forehead and then proceeds down the body. Finally, the disease transforms into one of four varieties: ordinary, modified, malignant and hemorrhagic – each of which varies in its overall fatality rate.
Birthplace of the cure to smallpox
Edward Jenner’s house, the place where he undertook the most important work in his formulation of the vaccination against smallpox, still stands today. Located in the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, the house is now the Edward Jenner Museum, which combines a traditional museum with an interactive learning environment for children and a historical archive. For more information, readers can visit www. jennermuseum.com.
Virus – The smallpox vaccine is made from a virus called vaccinia, which is another pox-type virus that, while related to smallpox, can’t cause it. It comes stored within a secure vial.
Antibodies – With the vaccinia now in the body, it induces antibodies that are cross-protective for all variola (smallpox) viruses, as well as many others including monkeypox and cowpox.
Blister – At the site of insertion, after four days a red, itchy bump develops, called the Jennerian vesicle. This blister fills with pus, then drains, dries and falls off eventually, leaving a scar.
Needle – The smallpox vaccine is not delivered with a hypodermic syringe. Instead it is delivered using a bifurcated (two-pronged) instrument. The needle is designed this way so that it holds a droplet of solution each time.
Pricking – The vaccinia solution is inserted by a series of quick, shallow pricks into the surface of the skin (usually on the arm). This causes a sore spot and draws a little blood.