Does Smallpox Still Exist and What is It? Dr. Norman Swan

by | Tests and Investigations

Smallpox is the only infection which has been eradicated in most of the first wold counties, including Australia.

Smallpox is the only infection to have been eliminated around the world. Well, not entirely eliminated, I’ll come back to that in a moment, but certainly in the general community.

So it’s a viral disease, and it’s particularly of children and causes nasty pustules on the body. They look a bit like chicken pox but they’ve got a different distribution from chicken pox and a very high mortality rate, particularly in children. So it’s a nasty disease, and if you survive it you’re left scarred. So it killed a lot of people and left a lot of people disfigured and it was one of the first diseases ever to have a vaccine against it. In fact the word vaccine comes from the vaccine for smallpox, vacca meaning cow.

There was a GP in England called Edward Jenner, who noticed that milkmaids did not get smallpox, but they were infected by cowpox, and they would have these sores on their hands, but they never got cowpox. And so what he did was, he took some material from the cowpox lesions, and you know, hair raising experiment, gave a little boy called Jimmy Phipps the cowpox vaccination, which he scraped into the arm, so he give him cowpox, and then infected him with smallpox, and he didn’t get it. So, I mean, we would not have got through any ethics committee ever but that was the beginning of a safe, smallpox vaccine.

In fact, they had been using smallpox itself as a vaccine before that. So the word vaccine actually should only ever be used for smallpox because it’s for the virus vaccinia and to prevent smallpox. Everything else should be called immunisation but like everyone else, I use the word vaccination too.

Dr Norman Swan, Physician and Journalist
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