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Government Resources: Health, Disability, Safety, Nutrition and Fitness: Smallpox

Smallpox Key Web Links

What is Smallpox?

Smallpox is a disease caused by the Variola major virus. Some experts say that over the centuries it has killed more people than all other infectious diseases combined.  Worldwide immunization stopped the spread of smallpox three decades ago. The last case was reported in 1977. Two research labs still keep small amounts of the virus.  Experts fear bioterrorists could use the virus to spread disease.

Smallpox spreads very easily from person to person. Symptoms are flu-like.  They include

  • High fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Backache
  • A rash with flat red sores

There is no treatment. Fluids and medicines for pain or fever can help control symptoms. Most people recover, but some can die. Those who do recover may have severe scars.

The U.S. stopped routine smallpox vaccinations in 1972. Military and other high-risk groups continue to get the vaccine. The U.S. has increased its supply of the vaccine in recent years.  The vaccine makes some people sick, so doctors save it for those at highest risk of disease. Source: MedlinePlus

Smallpox Vaccine

The smallpox vaccine helps the body develop immunity to smallpox. The vaccine is made from a virus called vaccinia which is a “pox”-type virus related to smallpox. The smallpox vaccine contains the “live” vaccinia virus—not dead virus like many other vaccines. For that reason, the vaccination site must be cared for carefully to prevent the virus from spreading. Also, the vaccine can have side effects (see the section “Smallpox Vaccine Safety” in this fact sheet). The vaccine does not contain the smallpox virus and cannot give you smallpox.

Currently, the United States has a big enough stockpile of smallpox vaccine to vaccinate everyone in the United States in the event of a smallpox emergency.

Smallpox vaccination provides high level immunity for 3 to 5 years and decreasing immunity thereafter. If a person is vaccinated again later, immunity lasts even longer. Historically, the vaccine has been effective in preventing smallpox infection in 95% of those vaccinated. In addition, the vaccine was proven to prevent or substantially lessen infection when given within a few days of exposure. It is important to note, however, that at the time when the smallpox vaccine was used to eradicate the disease, testing was not as advanced or precise as it is today, so there may still be things to learn about the vaccine and its effectiveness and length of protection. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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