As many of us will know by now, viruses can be extremely deadly if left to run rampant. COVID-19 is not the first disease to bring the globe to a standstill – anyone who knows a little bit about historic illnesses will soon tell you that the smallpox plague was one of the most devastating to ravage not only the UK, but all over the world.
A truly horrific disease, smallpox was only eradicated relatively recently, in the grand scheme of time. How much do you know about the deadliest of strains? It’s time to look back at this horrendous illness and quite how devastating it actually was over the years. Here are a few frightening facts to make you glad we have – hopefully – got the illness well under wraps.
Smallpox was an absolute leviathan of illness. It is thought that more than 300 million different people were killed by the disease during the 20th century. It’s caused by the variola virus, and thankfully, health authorities have been able to keep it under control.
In fact, smallpox vaccines and controls led the way for how we control and adapt modern medicine. Outbreaks have persisted over the years, but medical research has led to control and eradication of the virus.
The last outbreak of smallpox to affect a wide group of people occurred in the US in 1949. However, it’s thought that the disease was ‘officially’ shut down in the early 1980s.
Smallpox is thought to date back centuries. In fact, researchers looking into Viking history found previously unknown strains of the disease in the teeth of skeletons dating back to that era. Up until this research, it was not known that the disease stretched back so far.
The symptoms of smallpox are pretty nasty. Blistering rashes sprout up all over the body, and it is normally followed by an extremely high fever. As stated, it was once a huge killer – meaning it was never just a gentle cold or touch of the flu!
Much like flu and even COVID-19, however, it was a disease that was spread through coughing droplets. Therefore, some of the measures put in place to lock down COVID-19 might even have helped to fight against smallpox.
Now we know more about smallpox and its vast history, researchers believe that the virus and disease may have stretched all the way back to ancient Egypt or even India – over 3,000 years ago.
Believe it or not, one of the first victims of the disease – at least those we know of – was an Egyptian pharaoh. Specifically, it appears to have been Ramses V. We’re able to tell that he suffered from smallpox thanks to marks on his skin, even in his mummified form.
It’s entirely possible that smallpox could make a resurgence if people choose to weaponise it! That’s because smallpox is available in some lab conditions. However, these days, a vaccine for the disease is only available on a select basis. Only lab staff with access to the disease, and the military, are able to access the vaccine.
Vaccines for smallpox actually date back centuries. It was discovered and developed by the legendary chemist Edward Jenner, who found a preventive measure back in the 18th
While the disease may have killed many, many people, it is thought to only have been fatal for around 30% of those who contracted it. However, it led to a number of life-debilitating illnesses, such as blindness, heavy skin lesions, and even infertility.
It’s thought that it may have been smallpox which may have helped to kill off the Aztec Empire. There is evidence in Mexico that Spanish conquerors emerging in the region may have brought the disease over with them, leading to millions of Aztecs dying in the process.
While the figures for smallpox deaths in the 20th century stretch as high as 300 million worldwide, consider the figures just for Europe in the 18th century, when medicine was less evolved – over 60 million people succumbed to the illness. It’s therefore remarkable how far things have come – with many hoping COVID-19 can receive similar treatment.
Do you have any interesting or frightening facts about smallpox that we’ve missed? Share them here in the comments section below!