Since man began living together in agricultural settlements some 12.000 years ago until modern times, a tiny virus only 302-350 nanometers by 244 to 270 nanometers in size has shaped and reshaped our history. An equal opportunity killer made of only a single strand of DNA, the Variola virus has murdered billions.
Now, as of January 2019, this plague of humankind has seemingly been eradicated thanks to a worldwide effort of vaccination. How did this tiny virus become man’s number one enemy, how did we tame it, and what lies in the future for this killer?
That’s what we shall examine together in this article.
The Disease Called Smallpox
Smallpox is a highly contagious, disfiguring and deadly disease that has no cure or treatment.
The disease is spread through droplets spread into the air by infected individuals as they cough, sneeze and speak. Dangerously, there are no symptoms after contraction of smallpox, during its incubation stage of ten to seventeen days. During this stage, a person can unwittingly infect hundreds of people perpetuating the problem.
After the end of the incubation stage, a person infected with smallpox will experience the sudden onset of flu-like symptoms including:
- Severe fatigue
- Severe back pain
Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, flat, red spots appear beginning on the face hand and forearms then spreading to the rest of the body. Then, within one or two days the spots become liquid filled blisters that later turns into a puss.
After about eight days, scabs appear on the skin that after falling off leave deep and disfiguring scars.
Horrifyingly, the same process seen on the outside of the body is also occurring on the inside as the intestines, stomach and other internal organs are covered with the same type of lesions.
For many centuries, even with modern medicine, the exact way the variola virus kills was not well-understood. Then in January 2009, the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB) released a news that a team of researchers working in a high containment lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA stating they had found the smoking gun.
Apparently, the variola virus kills by disabling the immune system of its victims by attacking the molecules it makes to block the replication of the virus. The destruction of the human ability to fend off viruses done by variola leaves its victim with no protection from infection and it is these infections that kill.
The Early History of a Killer
What we know of the beginning of smallpox is the only speculation, but this guess is made based on the etiology of other killer viruses such as Ebola.
It is firmly believed by most scientists that the variola virus crossed over from domesticated animals, possibly cattle, in our very earliest farming communities. It found a prosperous home among humans, as it is highly contagious.
It wasn’t until between 1570 B.C. and 1085 B.C. that we first hear about smallpox. In ancient Egyptian scrolls is found a reference in a papyrus scroll that briefly describes what must have been smallpox. Indeed, in clay tablets from the Hittites who lived in the Middle East, there are even accusations that the Egyptians infected their population during a war between the two civilizations.
There is speculation that smallpox brought down many cities and civilizations. Indeed, this small enemy devastated Athens in 430 B.C. and hastened the fall of the Roman Empire killing 3.5-7 million people during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
By the 6th century, the smallpox virus had spread across Europe, Asia and Africa bringing death to millions each year.
Smallpox Has Steered Human History
The way the tiny variola virus has changed world events and thus human history is astonishing. Approximately 30% of all people who contracted the disease died with those statistics being worse for children. In fact, newborns were often left unnamed until they contracted the disease to prove if they would survive.
Waves of smallpox epidemics would wipe out huge populations killing peasant and king alike. Queen Mary II of England, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, French King Louis XV and Tsar Peter II of Russia all died from the virulent disease.
Had these monarchs lived longer lives the world as we know it today would be very different?
The disease also leaves those who survive badly scarred and sometimes blinded making any possible matches among rulers harder to make as men sought out the healthy and beautiful. This too changed the course of human history as rulers were not born who might have been without the intervention of the variola virus.
Until the 16th and 17th centuries, the variola virus had controlled humanity only in the Old World. Then in those centuries, Europeans first landed in the new world of the Americas spreading the horror of smallpox onto that continent as well and effectively wiping out the Aztec and Inca Indians then later the other tribes in North America.
By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived with their weapons and finished them off, the populations of the peoples of the new world had been decimated.
Smallpox in the United States
By the seventeenth century, it was known in Africa and Asia that exposing an individual to small amounts of a disease to created immunity. In the early 1700s, doing this same procedure was gaining favor in Europe with the risky procedure being moderately successful reducing the death rate by to a small fraction of those who had received the treatment.
In 1717, while accompanying her husband to Turkey, an Englishwoman named Mary Wortley came across the ancient practice of inoculating children with smallpox. After the initial shock had worn off, Mrs. Wortly learned that if a child were treated with the process of using puss from a sick person were applied to a child protected them from the consequences of smallpox decided to have her six-year-old son given the procedure.
Three years later, before the Royal Society Members, Mrs. Wortley had her daughter inoculated in the same manner. Soon the practice was adopted by the aristocracy of England and Central Europe, yet the common people of Europe resisted its practice.
After a time though, the common people of Europe decided to have their children inoculated and themselves treated taking the practice to the new world with them.
In another twist of fate in the way, smallpox has shaped our world, both George Washington and Napoleon had their armies inoculated and this move helped both countries win at war.
Still the procedure of using live the virus taken from the puss filled sores of victims came with the risk of the person on the receiving end contacting a full-blown case of smallpox.
The Spread of an Effective Inoculation
Then in 1796, Edward Jenner, a British physician took note that dairymaids rarely sickened with smallpox after they had contracted cowpox. Cowpox was a common disease of cattle that when transmitted to humans who come into continuous and intimate contact with them get mildly ill.
Knowing the procedure for inoculating people with the variola virus, Jenner decided to use fluid taken from a cowpox lesion plus puss from smallpox and placing them into the skin of a young boy. The boy did not get sick with either disease and the first successful vaccination (taken from the word in Latin vacca for cow) for smallpox had been performed.
What began as an outbreak in the colonies on the North American eastern seaboard of smallpox soon spread throughout the continent and was already raging when the armies of the British and George Washington battled during the revolutionary war and the invasion of Canada by the Continental Army.
In fact, during the battle for Boston, smallpox broke out among both the British and Continental camps and by 1779 escaped slaves who had fled south caused huge outbreaks in Texas and Louisiana hitting the urban city of New Orleans the hardest. The epidemic sickened and killed thousands as it crossed the Great Plains, the Pacific Coast, Alaska, and Mexico.
Inoculation was a tested and proved way to prevent further outbreaks of smallpox.
Smallpox During Wartime
However, in the 1815 and 1850, New York and Maryland outlawed the practice followed soon thereafter by the other states leaving the United States wide open to new outbreaks of the killer disease. Indeed, by the outbreak of the Civil War inoculation was illegal in almost the entire country.
So, during the American Civil War generations of people had never received inoculation nor had the disease and it reared its ugly head again.
From May 1861-June 1866, 12,236 cases of smallpox were reported among the white troops serving in the Union Army equaling 5.5 per one thousand men. There were also 6,716 cases among black men serving in the Union army equaling 36.6 men. The death rates from smallpox were 23% for white troops and 35% for black.
Once again, the variola virus may have steered world history as, during the battle of Chancellorsville in the American Civil War in 1862, 5,000 soldiers serving in the Confederate army were unable to take to their posts from being too ill from smallpox.
Whether smallpox turned the tide of the Civil War or not remains in debate, but the fact remains that two of every three men who died during the Civil War died from smallpox, more than by bullets, bayonets or cannon balls combined.
The Worldwide Effort to Stamp Out a Killer
Even though the world now had a major weapon against smallpox, it continued to kill. Epidemic outbreaks of the variola vaccine continued to occur well into the twentieth century as people were slow to embrace the theory of vaccination.
In as late as 1924, when an outbreak occurred in Canada and crossed the border into the United States, 4,000 people became ill with smallpox and 133 died in Michigan.
However, this outbreak reiterated the fact that smallpox could be defeated through inoculation as an article in Time Magazine summarized that “no person who had been successfully vaccinated at any time in his life died of smallpox; of those who had never been successfully vaccinated and who developed the disease, 71% died; no one who had been vaccinated successfully within the previous twelve years developed smallpox.”
Afterward, immunizations for smallpox became widespread by 1949 the United States, causing American health officials to stop requiring smallpox inoculations being given to schoolchildren.
Soon after World War Two, in 1959, the newly formed World Health Organization (WHO) began a plan to end the reign of smallpox over mankind. During its first years of implantation, the World Health Organization’s efforts were poorly funded and lacked support from all the nations of the world. This resulted, despite all they could do with such limitations, in smallpox outbreaks continuing to be widespread on the continents of Asia, South America, and Africa.
However, the disease had been eliminated from North America in 1952 and Europe in 1953.
Then in 1967, with the Intensified Eradication Program and many other developments, steady progress was made around the world to rid mankind of smallpox forever.
Indeed, during the 1970s, smallpox was eradicated from South America, Asia and finally Africa in 1977. In 1975, Rahima Banu, a three-year-old little girl living in Asia was the last person to contract smallpox from nature and the last person to have active smallpox.
Janet Parker has the dubious distinction of being the last person in the world to die from smallpox after contracting it by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ms. Parker had been working as a medical photographer in the Birmingham University Medical School in England one floor above the Medical Microbiology Department that was doing research on smallpox.
A later investigation found that Ms. Parker had been infected through the accidental release of the variola virus into the hospital’s ventilation system from the lab below.
However, let it be noted that the Microbiologist who may have been responsible for Ms. Parker contracting the disease while in quarantine at his home, walked into his garden shed and slit his throat.
Perhaps he too should be counted among the billions of people in the history of humanity who died as the result of the tiny variola virus.
In October 1979, the World Health Organization announced that the world had once and for all eradicated the danger of smallpox from all human beings then living on planet earth.
The Terrifying and Possible Future of Smallpox
In the 1700s, the British were fighting France who was allied with the indigenous Indians of Canada. It was during this conflict, known as the French and Indian Wars, that a horrible new weapon was utilized against an unprotected foe.
During the Pontiac rebellion of 1763, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America write to Colonel Henry Bouquet a letter that sealed the fate of the Pontiac Tribe.
In it the letter he wrote these now heinous words about his enemy, “Could it not be contrived to send smallpox among these disaffected tribes of Indians? We must use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.” To this horrible suggestion, Colonel Henry Bouquet replied, “I will try to inoculate the [Native American tribe] with some blankets that may fall in their hands and take care not to get the disease myself.”
Smallpox then decimated the Native Americans who had never been exposed to the disease before and had no immunity. This was the first use of a biological weapon.
That was not the only time that smallpox was used as a weapon. It is proposed that during the American Revolutionary War in the winter of 1775-76, the British used smallpox to deliberately infect soldiers of the American troops.
Indeed, in December 1775, there are reports that the British ford commander in Quebec immunized citizens of that city and sent them out to infect the soldiers.
A few weeks later an outbreak of smallpox occurred among the American army that sickened 5,000 soldiers leaving them retreating after being forced to bury their dead in mass graves.
During World War Two, both British and American scientists investigated using smallpox as a weapon against the Axis Powers but abandoned the thought because of the widespread use of inoculations.
Then in 1969, President Nixon halted the United States Offensive Biological Weapons Program because the American people were reeling from the use of chemical weapons in Viet Nam.
Then in 1972, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union signed a treaty outlawing the development, production, and use of biological weapons. The pact left the United States and indeed most of the world believing that all parties involved had given up weaponizing such a heinous adversary as smallpox.
The World Reels from a Terrifying Revelation
In 1989, a senior Soviet bio-weapons scientist, Vladimir Pasechnik defected to the United Kingdom and told the world the truth. The Soviet Union had not ended its search for a smallpox weapon and indeed had intensified their efforts.
Pasechnik revealed to a terrified world that in 1973 the Soviet Union had established a civilian pharmaceutical company known as Biopreparat to act as a front for a massive offensive bio-weapons program.
Vladimir Pasechnik, now known as Ken Alibek, was the Chief Scientist of Biopreprat from 1987 to 1992. He told the world that he had been told that neither the British nor the Americans had given up their research either. This lie told to him by his bosses and backed up by KGB reports had convinced him to continue his research.
Then in 1991, Ken Alibek, along with several other Soviet scientists, toured and inspected four laboratory facilities in the United States. There he found the biowarfare facilities had been completely abandoned. This trip convinced Alibek that he had been lied to and he defected.
Once he arrived in the United States in 1992, Alibek was thoroughly debriefed by the CIA and shared the startling news that the Soviets were using samples of smallpox they had kept during the campaign to eradicate smallpox had been used to create weapons.
To Donald Ainslie Henderson, the person who had led the campaign to eradicate smallpox, the Soviets had deliberately steered the world toward destruction. The Soviet Union had been the country to propose the massive inoculation of the populations of the globe to eradicate the disease.
Now it appeared they had done so knowing what an advantage they would have by leaving the world vulnerable. Since the disease had been eradicated and inoculations had ceased the Soviets would be able to conquer enemies and take over dominance of humanity using the supply of smallpox they had in their possession and were developing into a weapon.
What Will Happen in the Future?
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Ken Alibek believes that unemployed and badly paid molecular scientists probably sold samples of the most virulent forms of smallpox, India 67 and India 1, to rogue states.
However, in 1984 when the world’s remaining smallpox samples were moved to two high-security labs in Russia and America, there were no inspections conducted to make sure that there were no other samples in either country.
Indeed, based on questionable evidence, intelligence agencies in the western countries believe that North Korea, Iraq and Russia currently have the capacity to deploy smallpox as a weapon.
Other countries suspected or known to have stockpiles of smallpox are China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Yugoslavia.
Today debate rages as to whether all samples of smallpox should be destroyed or not. Some say that so long as the samples are kept the inevitability of it being used as a weapon remains.
Others state that keeping a stockpile of the variola virus is vital in case a rogue nation does decide to release smallpox back into the human population to make more vaccine.
It is this author’s firm hope that as humans continue to merge into a global community, the hatreds and suspicions that hold us back cease. Only then can mankind be finally free of smallpox forever.
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