Smallpox

  • Medical Author:
    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP is the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, and completed her residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Indiana University.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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Smallpox facts

  • Smallpox is a contagious disease caused by the variola virus.
  • Smallpox was the first disease to be eliminated from the world through public-health efforts and vaccination.
  • Smallpox still poses a threat because existing laboratory strains may be used as biological weapons.
  • Smallpox causes high fever, prostration, and a characteristic rash. The rash usually includes blister-like lesions that occur everywhere on the body.
  • Approximately one-third of people with smallpox died from the disease. Survivors were scarred for life. If the eye was infected, blindness often resulted.
  • There are new experimental medications that might be effective in smallpox, but these have not been tested in human cases since the disease has been eradicated.
  • The vaccine contains a live virus called vaccinia. It is administered by dipping a pronged piece of metal into the vaccine and then pricking the skin.
  • The vaccine has uncommon side effects that may be fatal, including infection of the heart and brain with the vaccinia strain. Serious side effects are more common with the initial vaccine and are uncommon with second doses.
  • The vaccine is currently only given to selected military personnel and laboratory workers who handle the smallpox virus.

What is smallpox?

Smallpox is an infectious disease of the past that was eliminated by vaccination. The disease was caused by the variola virus, which spread from person to person. Affected people became very ill with a high fever and a characteristic rash. Up to one-third of people with smallpox died. Although the disease has been wiped out, samples of the virus still exist in high-security laboratories in the United States and Russia. This has led to concerns about use of the virus in biological warfare. For this reason, some military personnel are still vaccinated against smallpox.

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