The Smallpox Virus
The name 'smallpox' refers to the multitude of small bumps that spread over the bodies of those infected. Smallpox is caused by infection with the variola virus. The word 'variola' is from the Latin word meaning "spotted."
Variola virus belongs to the genus orthopoxvirus, of the family Poxviridae and sub-family chrodopoxvirinae. Viewed under a microscope, the virus is large and brick-shaped in form.
Four viruses in the genus orthopoxvirus cause disease in humans - variola, vaccinia, cowpox and monkeypox. In nature, only humans are infected by the variola virus. The other three types can infect both humans and animals.
Poxviruses are considered unique amongst all DNA viruses because of the way they replicate. Other viruses replicate in the nucleus of a cell, while the Poxyvirus replicates in the cytoplasm of a cell.
There are two basic types of smallpox - Variola major and Variola minor. Variola major is, as the name indicates, the most serious form of the disease. Unfortunately, it was also the most common form. Variola minor caused a much milder form of the disease which resulted in death in less than 1% of the cases. Infection with either variola form provides immunity against the other.
Smallpox is transmitted from one person to another primarily through inhalation of airborne variola virus. A person is generally contagious within a radius of approximately 6 feet. In some cases, however, it can be transmitted through direct contact with contaminated bodily fluids, bedding or clothing.
History of Smallpox
Scientists believe that smallpox was present in the human population dating back at least 3,000 years to the time of Pharoah Ramses V of Egypt.This belief is based on what is thought to be a pustular rash on his mummified body.
It is believed, based on historical records in Asia, that Egyptian traders then spread smallpox into China and India as early as 1500 BC. There are detailed descriptions of a disease that is undoubtedly smallpox in the 4th century AD in China and the 7th century AD in India. It is believed that the disease was carried from China to Japan in the 6th century AD. A subsequent smallpox epidemic in Japan from 735 - 737 AD is estimated to have killed as much as one-third of that population.
A lack of written evidence indicates that smallpox did not cross into Europe or southwest Asia until the 7th century AD. The disease is not noted in the Bible or literature of the Greeks and Romans, as it surely would have been had it occurred during in those locations. Currently, it is believed that Arab armies moving out of Africa and up through southwestern Europe during the 7th and 8th centuries AD first carried the disease to those areas.
It is clear that smallpox was present during the Middle Ages in Europe, and became more established as the population grew. By the 1500s, smallpox was well established in Europe, where the death rate was as high as 30% of all those infected. The European exploratiohn and colonization served to spread the disease even further, eventually making it one of the most common causes of death in the known world.
During the late 1700s, smallpox is estimated to have killed as many as 400,000 Europeans per year, and was considered the cause of a full third of all blindness in those countries.
During the 1900s, smallpox is estimated to have killed between 300 and 500 million people. In the early 1950s, it is estimated that 50 million cases of smallpox occurred throughout the world each year. In fact, as late as 1967 it is estimated that 15 million people contracted smallpox and that some two million died in that year alone.
Notable Smallpox Cases
To gain an additional understanding of just how common smallpox was prior to its eradication, note the following well-known figures that suffered from and/or died of smallpox:
- Queen Mary II of England (died)
- Emperor Joseph I of Austria (died)
- King Luis I of Spain (died)
- Tsar Peter II of Russia (died in 1730)
- Queen Ulrika Elenora of Sweden (died)
- King Louis XV of France (died in 1774)
- Lakota Chief Sitting Bull
- Pharoah Ramses V of Egypt (survived)
- Cuitlahuac, the 10th ruler of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (died in 1520)
- Huayna Capic - Incan emperor (died in 1527)
- Guru Har Krishan, 8th Guru of the Sikhs (died in 1664)
- U.S. President George Washington (survived in 1751)
- Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria (died in 1777)
- Margaret, Queen of Scotland (sister to King Henry VIII, survived)
- Anne of Cleves (fourth wife of Henry VIII, survived)
- Mary 1 of England (daughter of King Henry VIII, survived in 1527)
- Queen Elizabeth I of England (daughter of King Henry VIII, survived in 1562 but was heavily scarred)
- Mary, Queen of Scots (survived the disease as a child)
- Edward VI (only surviving son of Henry VIII, died of complications of the disease)
- U.s. President Abraham Lincoln (survived in 1863, quarantined shortly after the Gettysburg Address)
- U.S. President Andrew Jackson (survived)
- U.S.S.R. leader Joseph Stalin (survived at the age of seven)
- Hungarian poet & writer of the Hungarian national Anthem, Ference Kolcsey (survived but lost right eye)
The Speckled Monster: a Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox
Jennifer Lee Carrell transports readers back to the early eighteenth century to tell the tales of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, two iconoclastic figures who helped save London and Boston from the deadliest disease mankind has known.
Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82
A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across North America when the War of Independence began, and until now we have known almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply Variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone on the continent.
Discuss this article!
Please feel free to join the Biology forum discussion of this article here: Smallpox - The Small Pox Virus and Its History
You can also follow this site on Facebook and Twitter:
Facebook Page - Biology at BellaOnline
Twitter - BioBellaOnline