History & Culture

History of smallpox virus | Vaccine, eradication, and the blankets

Smallpox ravaged all humanity, starting in the years before Christ, reaching Egyptian merchants, North Africa and India, and then to the most remote communities in the world through trade and conquests. The facial scars from this disease were even found on the Egyptian mummies dating back to 1600 BC. The oldest smallpox outbreak case ever recorded happened in the war between the Hittites and Egyptians in 1350 BC.

The treatment of smallpox, and the blankets

It is known that all heirs of the civilization, including the Hittite king and his son, died from this disease. Hittite civilization is the first of many civilizations that were destroyed due to this disease. By 180 AD, the death toll from smallpox was 7 million people. This caused a decline period in the Roman Empire. The Spaniards and Portuguese carried this disease to the American continent, thereby broke the Aztec and Inca civilizations. In the 100 years since the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1518, the local population, which is thought to be around 22 million, was dropped to 2 million.

Millions of Indians were killed by the British and Americans, half a million deaths were due to smallpox blankets.
Millions of Indians were killed by the British and Americans, half a million deaths were due to smallpox.

Along with colonialism, the whole world started to experience similar cases. In 1763, Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of the British armies in North America, was the first evil to unleash biological warfare by proposing to use the liquid obtained from scab and blisters to apply it on blankets and give away to the Indian tribes. In the 19th century, the American government used the same biological weapon against the Indians. Thus, smallpox caused the deaths of about half a million people, more than the number of people who died from wars and other epidemics before the 20th century. This is the most painful and neglected disaster about the smallpox disease.

Following Edward Jenner’s proven vaccination technique, this practice has spread to many parts of the world. Subsequently, in the 19th century, the cowpox virus was replaced by the vaccine virus which was the first example of the vaccine obtained from cows. When administered orally or by injection to the person, the vaccine neutralized or destroyed offending microorganisms by causing lymphocytes to produce certain antibody proteins. The vaccine was consisting of living, attenuated or dead microorganisms (sometimes part of the protein that makes up the organism).

World Health Organization to fight smallpox

Dr. Donald Henderson was head of the World Health Organization project.
Dr. Donald Henderson was the head of the World Health Organization project.

In 1926, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Smallpox and International Vaccination Commission began to examine the content of the smallpox vaccines and set the production, storage, and distribution of the vaccines to a certain standard. Due to this inspection, the vaccine production was brought under the control of Europe and North America until the mid-1900s. However, there was an uncontrolled production in many parts of the world. Immunoglobulin, a vaccine produced by the human body against antigens and prepared by plasma in the blood of people who have recently been vaccinated, was released in the early 1950s. This substance is used in cases when the body cannot produce enough antibodies (defense mechanisms against antigens) by its own effort during the vaccination.

To summarize the treatment of smallpox, with the smallpox vaccine produced in a certain standard, and the introduction of the vaccine immunoglobulin produced by the human body resulted in the virus removed from all Europe and North America. This had led to a universal effort of eradication of smallpox worldwide. The need for this universal effort and sensitivity comes from the fact that the variola virus causing smallpox only survives in a human cell, and if enough people get the vaccination, this meant complete extinction for the virus.

An international call from the Russian professor

Zhadanov was the most important inspiration behind the elimination of smallpox in the 20th century.
Zhadanov was the most important inspiration behind the elimination of smallpox in the 20th century.

It was the Russian professor Viktor Zhadanov from the Soviet Union, who proposed the need for a global program to eradicate the disease and led the treatment efforts to begin in 1958. The Soviet Union was a country with a vast territory at that time, where smallpox was common. At the same time, the WHO’s regional program aimed at eradicating smallpox in the entire American continent was the first joint international program implemented. The 12th World Health Congress, convened in May 1959, made the announcement of undertaking the universal effort to put an end to the smallpox. This initiative was previously launched in the entire American continent in 1950 but began to weaken. At the 19th World Health Congress held in 1966, it was decided to use WHO funds for this universal effort.

Even after these promising progress, the reluctance to continue the program still existed and many people began to believe that it would not be possible to completely eliminate the smallpox disease. The suspicions had deepened with the fact that the unknown situation of the remote settlements, the insufficiency of health services, logistical problems, and the failures in eliminating malaria. However, with the introduction of effective dry vaccines and realizing the fact that this virus can live only in the human cell provided a great advantage in the struggle to root out the disease.

The last smallpox case in Somalia

The last smallpox case was seen in 1977.
The last smallpox case was seen in 1977.

With the help of mass vaccination campaigns held between 1967 and 1980 and monitoring programs aimed at researching and detecting the types of smallpox throughout the world, the future was brighter. The Soviet Union contributed to the campaign with 14 million doses of vaccines and the United States with 190 million doses of vaccines. The last case of smallpox in the world was reported on October 26, 1977, in Merca, Somalia.

To date, there are only two laboratories left that investigate the smallpox virus. One of these is the Moscow Research Institute in Russia, and the other is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the capital of the state of Georgia, USA. Although the genetic sequence of the smallpox virus is known, there has been a debate as to whether the viruses from this latest case that appeared many years later should be protected for examination or destroyed.

The world population is now too vulnerable to the possibility of the outbreak of a new smallpox due to vaccination programs stopped after the disease has been rooted. There is growing anxiety about the possibility of this virus might be stored and used as a biological weapon by terrorists or governments. The complete destruction of the smallpox virus was postponed from June 1999 to June 2002.