Is Smallpox Really Gone Forever?

Infectious diseases threaten the lives of millions around the world. Something rare probably won’t affect you, but will definitely kill you if you get it. And something as seemingly minor as the flu can spread rapidly and leave those most vulnerable in serious danger — or worse.

So far, smallpox is the only contagious illness science has completely eliminated. We call this disease eradication. In the case of smallpox specifically, it means no one has had it in a significant amount of time, and it’s very unlikely anyone will again.

Polio and measles are other likely candidates for total elimination, but we’re not quite there yet. For now, a large portion of research continues to focus on preventing widespread disease and death if and when diseases such as smallpox spread.

Syringe on a map of Africa

Syringe on a map of Africa | iStock.com/dk_photos

There hasn’t been a new case of the disease since 1980, when the World Health Organization officially declared the world was free of the virus. But scientists are still developing drugs to treat the disease in case of a potential outbreak.

If officials say we aren’t in any danger of the disease, how is it possible that it could spread through the global population again?

The short answer is, the virus still exists, even if it doesn’t have any contact with the masses. There are still two known locations in which vials of it are kept — one in the United States, and the other in Russia.

Experts say it’s possible to genetically engineer the virus and use it in a bioterrorist attack. It’s not likely. But it could happen.

If that’s even a remote possibility, why don’t scientists just destroy the pathogen and eliminate the chances the virus could infect humans again? Because they want to keep using it for research.

Continuing to study the virus could help researchers develop better vaccines, diagnostics tools, and treatment strategies for any future outbreaks.

Not everyone agrees prevention is more important than getting rid of an unnecessary pathogen. But neither country has agreed to say goodbye to smallpox for good.

Vaccine in vial

Vaccine in vial | iStock.com/Mckyartstudio

If smallpox is still out there, do we need vaccinations to prevent it? Once the disease was eliminated, the general public stopped receiving vaccines. There’s no need for a vaccine against something that’s (almost) impossible to contract. But there’s always a small chance it could happen — in a very extreme case.

Thankfully, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s enough of the vaccine in storage to treat anyone who would need it in the midst of an unexpected outbreak. The vaccine we have is effective. Even if a terrorist reintroduced it into the world, there’s little chance you’d get it or even die from it.

Nations have feared smallpox for centuries. Even those who survived it — about two-thirds of those directly affected — were left scarred and even disabled. It wasn’t a pleasant disease to have, and it probably wiped out more people over time than any other disease ever has or will.

Technically, smallpox still exists — small fragments of it anyway, kept in labs away from public hands. It’s no longer something we have to fear. But researchers are still trying to keep it that way, just in case.

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