The Scourge of the World
Nestled deep in the bowels of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, locked away in a blue and silver freezer lays what remains of humankinds deadliest enemy. Neatly tucked away in a virology institute in Siberia, guarded twenty-four hours a day, lays its counterpart. No, not a man made weapon of mass destruction; just a natural born killer of man. This insatiable killer is known in the scientific community as the Variola Virus. To the layperson, it is called, smallpox. The smallpox virus first presented itself between three thousand and twelve thousand years ago, possibly in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs (Preston44). There are two types of Variola virus, Variola Major and Variola Minor. Variola Minor is a mutated form of the Variola Major. Variola Minor was first discovered in Jamaica in 1863. Variola Minor is not the strain responsible for millions of deaths: only one percent of the people who contract Variola Minor die from the virus (Preston45). The classic virus, Variola Major is responsible for one in three deaths among the people who contract this form. The Variola virus has had more victims than any other infectious disease including the Black Death, in the Middle Ages (Preston44). Although smallpox was officially declared eradicated, by the World Health Organization, it is still a topic of great concern and controversy to many scientist and governments, and the virus is coveted by many terrorist organizations.
The virus spreads through droplet infection, such as sneezing, or through contact with the dried scabs of a victim, or even their clothing. Patients infected with smallpox will often begin to show symptoms within nine to twelve days after exposure. The symptoms present themselves in an almost flu like state. Beginning with a high fever, back aches, chills, and headaches. The next stage of the disease produces a rash on the face, arms, legs, chest and back. In a few days, the rash turns to a blister-like pustule. In the following days, the virus attacks the eyes, lungs, throat, heart, and liver, which lead the patients to a painful death. If the infected person is lucky enough to live, through the disease, the victim is left scarred and permanently disfigured. Smallpox has been around for centuries, and spreads with alarming ease. The Spanish brought the disease to Mexico in the 1500s where nearly three million Indians were infected and died (Buran). Many historians credit smallpox with the fall of both the Aztecs and the Incan empires (Buran). In the 17th and 18th centuries, the virus wiped out entire tribes of North American Indians. At this point, smallpox had grown to epidemic proportions all over the world, killing more than two thousand people a day (Buran).
After many centuries, with smallpox and thousands of people dying from this virus, the medical community started looking for a cure. With no cure found doctors of the 18th century turned towards prevention. In the year 1796, an English country doctor, named Edward Jenner, performed the worlds first vaccination (Yuan). Doctor Jenner had observed, even though, smallpox was a widespread disease, milkmaids never seemed to be infected. The Doctor soon realized this was due to the milkmaids contracting cowpox from the cows they worked with (Yuan). With the similarities between the two viruses, Jenner saw that cowpox could protect an individual from the deadly smallpox virus. Jenner tested his vaccine by inoculating an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, with the cowpox virus, then injecting him with live smallpox virus (Yuan). James Phipps was protected showing no symptoms of the virus and no harm came to him. After more research and study, Jenner published an article in a medical Journal in 1798, reporting the efficiency of his new vaccine treatment. Doctor Jenners vaccination treatment was a historical landmark for the medical community and the world. Over the next one hundred and fifty years, health workers in all parts of the world gradually adopted the practice of vaccination. Even though vaccinations were being used, the disease was still prevalent in many places where not enough people were vaccinated.
In 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) began a worldwide effort to wipe out smallpox (Fenner). One by one, countries around the world began to eliminate this deadly virus. With surveillance and containment, the disease was eventually eradicated. The last known case of smallpox in the United States occurred in Texas, in 1949. The last reported case of variola major was in Bangladesh in 1975. The last known case of Variola Minor was found in Somalia, in 1977 (Fenner). The W.H.O., (world health organization) then waited two more years, on October 26, 1977,to officially declare smallpox the first disease to be eradicated. With the virus, officially eradicated, smallpox vaccinations ceased everywhere. The medical community at this time thought just one dose of the vaccine would produce a life-long immunity in almost all of its recipients, and further shots or boosters were not be needed (Fenner). Once the disease as officially declared eradicated, W.H.O., ordered most remaining laboratory stocks of the live virus destroyed. Most people today have no immunity to smallpox. Researchers have found that the vaccine begins to wear off in many people after only ten years. In todays time, there is very little vaccine on hand in the United States or anywhere else in the world. The W.H.O. once had over ten million vaccines stored in Geneva, Switzerland, but in 1990, an advisory committee recommended that most of it be destroyed, thinking smallpox was no longer a threat (Preston). So far, the United States government has been unable to get any vaccines made. A recent survey conducted by, W.H.O. revealed only one factory capable of making the vaccine, and only in very small quantities (Preston). All their research suggests there is no known factory that can mass-produce the vaccine, thus causing great concern for many world governments.
Smallpox is now classified, as a level four biosafety hot agent, the most dangerous kind of virus, because it is lethal, airborne, highly contagious, and is now exotic to the human species, there is not enough vaccine to stop an outbreak (Yuan). Experts feel that a single outbreak anywhere on earth would be a global medical emergency, thus making smallpox, the perfect biological weapon. There is controversy brewing among scientist today, over what to do with the last remaining samples of smallpox in the U.S. and in Russia. Many scientists are proponents in keeping the virus for study. Some scientist claim we do not have the ability to study the pathogenesis of smallpox, because it is a virus specific to humans, and there are many technical and ethical barriers which limit the extent of such studies (Kreeger). Many molecular biologists claim, that since the entire gene sequence of smallpox has been, sequenced and made public. It would be relatively easy for any terrorist organization to create smallpox clones. Even, possible to modify them into weapons grade smallpox (Kreeger). The W.H.O. is also asking itself another question, are the samples, held in Russia and the U.S., the only two remaining samples? It is possible and highly probable that the answers is no. It is thought that the US military and other foreign governments have secret stockpiles of the virus, in case it is needed in a military situation.
The W.H.O. now finds itself, in a difficult situation so to speak. Do we destroy, humanitys most deadly enemy, so as though not to fall into the wrong hands, and wipe out an entire species forever? The primary issue is that by destroying what is left of smallpox, there will be no chance of an accidental outbreak. Or can it be kept safe enough to study, in which the knowledge gathered might help future generations battle other viruss, such as AIDS? Let us not forget how many millions of lives; this killer took), and how many centuries it took to gain control over. This dilemma is not one entered into lightly in the times we face today, and whatever decision the W.H.O reaches it will affect us all.
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