For centuries, millions of people have become infected with the smallpox virus. The word smallpox originates from the Latin word for “spotted,” with the disease stemming from the variola virus. Those infected with smallpox would have symptoms of a fever and a distinct rash, with pus-filled bumps appearing on their face and body.
While there is no exact point of origin of the smallpox virus, three mummies have been found with smallpox-like rashes on their skin. One of the mummies found was identified as Pharaoh Ramses V, who showed bumps on his cheeks.
As time went on, smallpox began to show up in many different continents. Between trade, expansion, and colonization, the disease began to spread, with Japan first showing cases of smallpox in the sixth century. Increased trade with China and Korea made way for the disease to begin its spread. Africa, Spain, and Portugal were also introduced to the disease with Arab expansion in the seventh century. In the 11th century, Europe began to see cases of the disease through the travel of crusaders. By the 15th century, parts of western Africa were exposed due to Portuguese occupation. European colonization during the 16th and 17th century spread the disease into the Caribbean and the Americas. Australia was introduced to the disease in the 18th century due to voyaging by Great Britain.
Approximately three of out every ten people infected with the smallpox disease have died. Variolation was one of the first methods used to help control the spread of smallpox. This method included moving smallpox sores from an infected person to a non-infected person. This could be done by either scratching the material from the sores into the arm of a non-infected person or having the non-infected person inhale the material of the sores through their nose.
In 1796, an English doctor named Edward Jenner created the first vaccine to help treat the disease. Dr. Jenner began to observe people who had suffered from cowpox, a viral disease of cow utters, to see if the process of variolation had any effect on those infected with cowpox.
A milkmaid by the name of Sarah Nelmes and a nine-year-old, James Phipps, was Dr. Jenner’s key subjects to put this theory to the test. Material from the milkmaid’s cowpox sore was “inoculated” to the nine-year-old’s arm. Months later, Phipps was exposed to the variola virus by Dr. Jenner. After months of observation, Phipps showed no signs of smallpox. This discovery proved Dr. Jenner’s theory, leading to more research trials to follow. Dr. Jenner supplied healthcare workers with vaccines he had created from his findings.
Thanks to the success of vaccination, there was a decrease in the number of deaths seen in those infected with smallpox. Years later, the vaccine originally created by Dr. Jenner would change, instead of using the vaccinia virus itself to help cure infected patients.
In 1967, the Intensified Eradication Program officially began. The World Health Organization initiated the plan back in 1959 but due to lack of funds and commitment from countries, as well as shortages of vaccine donations, the program would not start up until years later with outbreaks occurring in South America, Africa, and Asia in 1966.
The revamped program allowed countries with recurring smallpox cases to produce more vaccines needed to treat patients. The program allowed for continued progress to finally eradicate the disease worldwide.