Friday, July 19, 2013

Smallpox Afterlife

Shapona, the West African God of Smallpox (1969). Image Source: CDC (ID #15226).

Caption for the above photograph: "This is a statue of Shapona, the West African God of Smallpox. It is part of the CDC’s Global Health Odyssey (GHO) collection of artifacts. A uniquely carved wooden figure, it is adorned with layers of meaningful objects such as a monkey skull, cowrie shells, and nails. Donated in 1995 by Ilze and Rafe Henderson, it was created by a traditional healer who made approximately 50 Shaponas as commemorative objects for the CDC, WHO, and other public health experts attending a 1969 conference on smallpox eradication."

Officially, smallpox was eradicated in 1979. One of the most feared of illnesses, it still exists in disease research centres in the United States and Russia. The disease was eradicated through a global mass vaccination campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. To see photos of the disease symptoms, and of the gruesome occasional reactions to the vaccinations, go to the Centers for Disease Control site (here). The images are not for the faint-hearted.

The last people who naturally contracted two variations of smallpox both survived and are still alive. One was Rahima Banu Begum, who had the last known case of naturally occurring Variola major smallpox in 1975, on Bhola Island in the Bangladesh district of Barisal. In a 2009 interview, she stated that she is still treated poorly by villagers and family members because she once had the disease. The other is Ali Maow Maalin, a Somalian cook who contracted the last case of naturally occurring Variola minor smallpox in 1977. Interviewed most recently in 2006, he now works for the World Health Organization to promote vaccination campaigns.

Smallpox and humans have a long history. The virus emerged around 10,000 BCE. Wiki notes some of the virus's modern history: the disease devastated Native American populations with the arrival of European colonists in the 16th century; with no previous exposure, they died at the rate of 80 to 90 per cent. Sometimes, Europeans infamously spread smallpox to Native Americans on purpose, although historians debate the degree to which this occurred. Smallpox killed about 400,000 Europeans annually at the end of the 18th century. It killed between 300 million and 500 million people in the 20th century.

Vaccination against the disease also had a long history. Intentional exposure of healthy people to another's smallpox scabs was practiced as far back as 1,000 BCE in India; this exposure might cause death, but usually brought on a mild form of the disease, which one might survive, thereafter becoming immune. The smallpox vaccine was the world's very first vaccine to be developed, by Edward Jenner in 1796, through his use of the milder cowpox virus. Similar treatments had preceded Jenner's work as early as the 1770s. The term 'vaccine' comes from the Latin vacca for cow.

The development of a stable vaccine in the 1960s led to the World Health Organization's innoculation campaign between 1967 and 1977. After a fatal 1978 accident at a UK repository, only two repositories of the disease remained: the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Koltsovo, Russia.

Since then, smallpox lurks in hideous sleeping afterlife, always promising to reemerge as the ultimate bio-threat. When one considers that smallpox was humanity's constant companion for some twelve millennia and has only been at bay for a mere 33 years, it is easy to see why it is still a cause for worry. Most disturbing, perhaps, is the possibility that weaponized artificial smallpox could be created as bioengineering gathers pace. But another thread appears through all the fears of pandemics, the politics, the foreign policy and secrecy: the smallpox vaccine offers a potential cure for some cancers

Below the jump, see some points about smallpox which have come to light since 1990.
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