Smallpox is a serious, contagious, and sometimes fatal infectious disease. There is no specific treatment for smallpox disease, and the only prevention is vaccination. The pox part of smallpox is derived from the Latin word for “spotted” and refers to the raised bumps that appear on the face and body of an infected person.
There are two clinical forms of smallpox. Variola major is the severe and most common form of smallpox, with a more extensive rash and higher fever. There are four types of variola major smallpox:
- ordinary (the most frequent type, accounting for 90% or more of cases);
- modified (mild and occurring in previously vaccinated persons);
- flat (rare and very severe); and
- hemorrhagic (rare and very severe).
Historically, variola major has an overall fatality rate of about 30%; however, flat and hemorrhagic smallpox usually are fatal. Variola minor is a less common presentation of smallpox, and a much less severe disease, with death rates historically of 1% or less.
Smallpox outbreaks have occurred from time to time for thousands of years, but the disease is now eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program. The last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949. The last naturally occurring case in the world was in Somalia in 1977. After the disease was eliminated from the world, routine vaccination against smallpox among the general public was stopped because it was no longer necessary for prevention.
What should I know about smallpox?
Smallpox is an acute, contagious, and sometimes fatal disease caused by the variola virus (an orthopoxvirus), and marked by fever and a distinctive progressive skin rash. In 1980, the disease was declared eradicated following worldwide vaccination programs. However, in the aftermath of the events of September and October, 2001, the U.S. government is taking precautions to be ready to deal with a bioterrorist attack using smallpox as a weapon. As a result of these efforts:
- There is a detailed nationwide smallpox preparedness program to protect Americans against smallpox as a biological weapon. This program includes the creation of preparedness teams that are ready to respond to a smallpox attack on the United States. Members of these teams—health care and public health workers—are being vaccinated so that they might safely protect others in the event of a smallpox outbreak.
- There is enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate everyone who would need it in the event of an emergency.
How serious is the smallpox threat?
The deliberate release of smallpox as an epidemic disease is now regarded as a possibility, and the United States is taking precautions to deal with this possibility.
How dangerous is the smallpox threat?
Smallpox is classified as a Category A agent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Category A agents are believed to pose the greatest potential threat for adverse public health impact and have a moderate to high potential for large-scale dissemination. The public is generally more aware of category A agents, and broad-based public health preparedness efforts are necessary. Other Category A agents are anthrax, plague, botulism, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers.
If I am concerned about a smallpox attack, can I go to my doctor and get the smallpox vaccine?
At the moment, the smallpox vaccine is not available for members of the general public. In the event of a smallpox outbreak, however, there is enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate everyone in the United States.
What are the symptoms of smallpox?
The symptoms of smallpox begin with high fever, head and body aches, and sometimes vomiting. A rash follows that spreads and progresses to raised bumps and pus-filled blisters that crust, scab, and fall off after about three weeks, leaving a pitted scar.
If someone comes in contact with smallpox, how long does it take to show symptoms?
After exposure, it takes between 7 and 17 days for symptoms of smallpox to appear (average incubation time is 12 to 14 days). During this time, the infected person feels fine and is not contagious.
Is smallpox fatal?
The majority of patients with smallpox recover, but death may occur in up to 30% of cases. Many smallpox survivors have permanent scars over large areas of their body, especially their face. Some are left blind.
How is smallpox spread?
Smallpox normally spreads from contact with infected persons. Generally, direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact is required to spread smallpox from one person to another. Smallpox also can be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects such as bedding or clothing. Indirect spread is less common. Rarely, smallpox has been spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains. Smallpox is not known to be transmitted by insects or animals.
If smallpox is released in aerosol form, how long does the virus survive?
The smallpox virus is fragile. In laboratory experiments, 90% of aerosolized smallpox virus dies within 24 hours; in the presence of ultraviolet (UV) light, this percentage would be even greater. If an aerosol release of smallpox occurs, 90% of virus matter will be inactivated or dissipated in about 24 hours.
How many people would have to get smallpox before it is considered an outbreak?
One confirmed case of smallpox is considered a public health emergency.
Is smallpox contagious before the smallpox symptoms show?
A person with smallpox is sometimes contagious with onset of fever (prodrome phase), but the person becomes most contagious with the onset of rash. The infected person is contagious until the last smallpox scab falls off.
Is there any treatment for smallpox?
Smallpox can be prevented through use of the smallpox vaccine. There is no proven treatment for smallpox, but research to evaluate new antiviral agents is ongoing. Early results from laboratory studies suggest that the drug cidofovir may fight against the smallpox virus; currently, studies with animals are being done to better understand the drug's ability to treat smallpox disease (the use of cidofovir to treat smallpox or smallpox reactions should be evaluated and monitored by experts at NIH and CDC). Patients with smallpox can benefit from supportive therapy (e.g., intravenous fluids, medicine to control fever or pain) and antibiotics for any secondary bacterial infections that may occur.
For more about smallpox, see Smallpox Disease
Last reviewed February 6, 2007
Last modified December 29, 2004