SEP 28, 2015 8:46 AM PDT

New Discoveries From the Ancienct History of the Smallpox Vaccine

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker
Smallpox killed 30% of its victims and brutally scarred those who survived the infection. In 1980, the terribly infectious disease was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization. How did we get to that point? Although it's been 35 years since the last known case of smallpox, recent studies have been attempting to identify the relationship between different smallpox vaccines used across the globe - studies prompted by the fear of smallpox becoming reintroduced to the human population in a weaponized form.

An old photograph of a smallpox patient
In the 18th century, smallpox infections swept the globe, terrorizing its victims with the promise of either death or permanent mutilation by scabs. In desperation to escape the disease, people tried numerous preventative actions but experienced almost no success. One popular preventative measure was "variolation" - scratching a person's skin with infectious smallpox virus to give them a rash but not the actual disease. If successful, the person would maybe get a fever but otherwise recover. Then, they would be immune to the more serious, full-on smallpox infection. More often than not, however, people would scratch too deeply, the virus would get into the bloodstream, and the person would be accidentally inoculated with smallpox (NIH). 

Fortunately, at the turn of the century, scientist Edward Jenner noticed a connection between smallpox and cowpox, a viral disease of the same family that caused a less lethal disease in humans than smallpox. Jenner noticed that milk maids tending to cowpox-ridden cattle seemed to be immune from smallpox. Smallpox is caused by a viral strain called Variola (CDC)Cowpox, the closely related neighbor, is caused by a viral strain called Vaccinia. Thus, Jenner developed a way to infect people with cowpox to prevent them from ever getting smallpox. He called this preventative inoculation a vaccine. 

Recent smallpox studies have focused on examining different Vaccinia strains used in different countries during the 20th century World Health Organization campaign to entirely eliminate the disease. Surprisingly, little was known about the origin of the smallpox vaccine. 

Researchers in Brazil from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro looked at two clones of the vaccine used to eliminate smallpox in Brazil, VACV-1OC. Both clones showed low virulence and and a protective immune response in experimental mice, suggesting both strains would be useful as a "second-generation vaccine" if needed (PUBLICASE COMUNICAÇÃO CIENTÍFICA). 

More studies on the genetic history of the smallpox vaccine can be expected to conducted in the future.

Watch the TED-Ed video below to understand more about the eradication of smallpox.



Source: Eurekalert 
About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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