Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor. The disease is also known by the Latin names Variola or Variola vera, derived from varius ("spotted") or varus ("pimple"). The disease was originally known in English as the "pox" or "red plague"; the term "smallpox" was first used in Britain in the 15th century to distinguish variola from the "great pox" (syphilis). The last naturally occurring case of smallpox (Variola minor) was diagnosed on 26 October 1977.
Infection with smallpox is focused in small blood vessels of the skin and in the mouth and throat before disseminating. In the skin it results in a characteristic maculopapular rash and, later, raised fluid-filled blisters. V. major produced a more serious disease and had an overall mortality rate of 30–35 percent. V. minorcaused a milder form of disease (also known as alastrim, cottonpox, milkpox, whitepox, and Cuban itch) which killed about 1 percent of its victims. Long-term complications of V. major infection included characteristic scars, commonly on the face, which occur in 65–85 percent of survivors. Blindness resulting from corneal ulceration and scarring, and limb deformities due to arthritis and osteomyelitis were less common complications, seen in about 2–5 percent of cases.
Smallpox is believed to have emerged in human populations about 10,000 BC. The earliest physical evidence of it is probably the pustular rash on the mummified body of Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt. The disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans annually during the closing years of the 18th century (including five reigning monarchs), and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Of all those infected, 20–60 percent—and over 80 percent of infected children—died from the disease. Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease and that two million died in that year.
After vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the WHO certified the global eradication of smallpox in 1979. Smallpox is one of two infectious diseases to have been eradicated, the other being rinderpest, which was declared eradicated in 2011.
The incubation period between contraction and the first obvious symptoms of the disease is around 12 days. Once inhaled, variola major virus invades the oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) or the respiratory mucosa, migrates to regional lymph nodes, and begins to multiply. In the initial growth phase the virus seems to move from cell to cell, but around the 12th day, lysis of many infected cells occurs and the virus is found in the bloodstream in large numbers (this is called viremia), and a second wave of multiplication occurs in the spleen, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. The initial or prodromal symptoms are similar to other viral diseases such as influenza and the common cold: fever of at least 38.3 °C (101 °F), muscle pain, malaise, headache and prostration. As the digestive tract is commonly involved, nausea and vomiting and backache often occur. The prodrome, or preeruptive stage, usually lasts 2–4 days. By days 12–15 the first visible lesions—small reddish spots called enanthem—appear on mucous membranes of the mouth, tongue, palate, and throat, and temperature falls to near normal. These lesions rapidly enlarge and rupture, releasing large amounts of virus into the saliva.
Smallpox virus preferentially attacks skin cells, causing the characteristic pimples (called macules) associated with the disease. A rash develops on the skin 24 to 48 hours after lesions on the mucous membranes appear. Typically the macules first appear on the forehead, then rapidly spread to the whole face, proximal portions of extremities, the trunk, and lastly to distal portions of extremities. The process takes no more than 24 to 36 hours, after which no new lesions appear. At this point variola major infection can take several very different courses, resulting in four types of smallpox disease based on the Rao classification: ordinary, modified, malignant (or flat), and hemorrhagic. Historically, smallpox has an overall fatality rate of about 30 percent; however, the malignant and hemorrhagic forms are usually fatal.
Ninety percent or more of smallpox cases among unvaccinated persons were of the ordinary type. In this form of the disease, by the second day of the rash the macules became raised papules. By the third or fourth day the papules filled with an opalescent fluid to become vesicles. This fluid became opaque and turbid within 24–48 hours, giving them the appearance of pustules; however, the so-called pustules were filled with tissue debris, not pus.
By the sixth or seventh day, all the skin lesions have became pustules. Between seven and ten days the pustules matured and reached their maximum size. The pustules were sharply raised, typically round, tense, and firm to the touch. The pustules were deeply embedded in the dermis, giving them the feel of a small bead in the skin. Fluid slowly leaked from the pustules, and by the end of the second week the pustules deflated, and started to dry up, forming crusts (or scabs). By day 16–20 scabs had formed over all the lesions, which have started to flake off, leaving depigmented scars.
Ordinary smallpox generally produced a discrete rash, in which the pustules stood out on the skin separately. The distribution of the rash was densest on the face; denser on the extremities than on the trunk; and on the extremities, denser on the distal parts than on the proximal. The palms of the hands and soles of the feet were involved in the majority of cases. Sometimes, the blisters merged into sheets, forming a confluent rash, which began to detach the outer layers of skin from the underlying flesh. Patients with confluent smallpox often remained ill even after scabs have formed over all the lesions. In one case series, the case-fatality rate in confluent smallpox was 62 percent.
Referring to the character of the eruption and the rapidity of its development, modified smallpox occurred mostly in previously vaccinated people. In this form the prodromal illness still occurred but may be less severe than in the ordinary type. There is usually no fever during evolution of the rash. The skin lesions tended to be fewer and evolve more quickly, are more superficial, and may not show the uniform characteristic of more typical smallpox. Modified smallpox was rarely, if ever, fatal. This form of variola major is more easily confused with chickenpox.
In malignant-type smallpox (also called flat smallpox) the lesions remained almost flush with the skin at the time when raised vesicles form in the ordinary type. It is unknown why some people developed this type. Historically, it accounted for 5–10 percent of cases, and the majority (72 percent) were children. Malignant smallpox was accompanied by a severe prodromal phase that lasted 3–4 days, prolonged high fever, and severe symptoms of toxemia. The rash on the tongue and palate was extensive. Skin lesions matured slowly and by the seventh or eighth day they were flat and appeared to be buried in the skin. Unlike ordinary-type smallpox, the vesicles contained little fluid, were soft and velvety to the touch, and may have contained hemorrhages. Malignant smallpox was nearly always fatal.
Hemorrhagic smallpox is a severe form that is accompanied by extensive bleeding into the skin, mucous membranes, and gastrointestinal tract. This form develops in approximately 2 percent of infections and occurred mostly in adults. In hemorrhagic smallpox the skin does not blister, but remains smooth. Instead, bleeding occurs under the skin, making it look charred and black, hence this form of the disease is also known as black pox.
In the early, or fulminating form, hemorrhaging appears on the second or third day as sub-conjunctival bleeding turns the whites of the eyes deep red. Hemorrhagic smallpox also produces a dusky erythema, petechiae, and hemorrhages in the spleen, kidney, serosa, muscle, and, rarely, the epicardium, liver, testes, ovaries and bladder. Death often occurs suddenly between the fifth and seventh days of illness, when only a few insignificant skin lesions are present. A later form of the disease occurs in patients who survive for 8–10 days. The hemorrhages appear in the early eruptive period, and the rash is flat and does not progress beyond the vesicular stage. Patients in the early stage of disease show a decrease in coagulation factors (e.g. platelets, prothrombin, and globulin) and an increase in circulating antithrombin. Patients in the late stage have significant thrombocytopenia; however, deficiency of coagulation factors is less severe. Some in the late stage also show increased antithrombin. This form of smallpox occurs in anywhere from 3 to 25 percent of fatal cases depending on the virulence of the smallpox strain. Hemorrhagic smallpox is usually fatal.
Smallpox is caused by infection with variola virus, which belongs to the genus Orthopoxvirus, the family Poxviridae and subfamily chordopoxvirinae.
The date of the appearance of smallpox is not settled. It most likely evolved from a rodent virus between 68,000 and 16,000 years ago. The wide range of dates is due to the different records used to calibrate the molecular clock. One clade was the variola major strains (the more clinically severe form of smallpox) which spread from Asia between 400 and 1,600 years ago. A second clade included both alastrim minor (a phenotypically mild smallpox) described from the American continents and isolates from West Africa which diverged from an ancestral strain between 1,400 and 6,300 years before present. This clade further diverged into two subclades at least 800 years ago. A second estimate has placed the separation of variola from Taterapox at 3000–4000 years ago. This is consistent with archaeological and historical evidence regarding the appearance of smallpox as a human disease which suggests a relatively recent origin. However, if the mutation rate is assumed to be similar to that of the herpesviruses, the divergence date between variola from Taterapox has been estimated to be 50,000 years ago. While this is consistent with the other published estimates, it suggests that the archaeological and historical evidence is very incomplete. Better estimates of mutation rates in these viruses are needed.
Variola is a large brick-shaped virus measuring approximately 302 to 350 nanometers by 244 to 270 nm, with a single linear double stranded DNA genome 186 kilobase pairs (kbp) in size and containing a hairpin loop at each end. The two classic varieties of smallpox are variola major and variola minor.
Four orthopoxviruses cause infection in humans: variola, vaccinia, cowpox, and monkeypox. Variola virus infects only humans in nature, although primates and other animals have been infected in a laboratory setting. Vaccinia, cowpox, and monkeypox viruses can infect both humans and other animals in nature.
The life cycle of poxviruses is complicated by having multiple infectious forms, with differing mechanisms of cell entry. Poxviruses are unique among DNA viruses in that they replicate in the cytoplasm of the cell rather than in the nucleus. In order to replicate, poxviruses produce a variety of specialized proteins not produced by other DNA viruses, the most important of which is a viral-associated DNA-dependent RNA polymerase.
Both enveloped and unenveloped virions are infectious. The viral envelope is made of modified Golgi membranes containing viral-specific polypeptides, including hemagglutinin. Infection with either variola major or variola minor confers immunity against the other.
Transmission occurs through inhalation of airborne variola virus, usually droplets expressed from the oral, nasal, or pharyngeal mucosa of an infected person. It is transmitted from one person to another primarily through prolonged face-to-face contact with an infected person, usually within a distance of 6 feet (1.8 m), but can also be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects (fomites) such as bedding or clothing. Rarely, smallpox has been spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains. The virus can cross the placenta, but the incidence of congenital smallpox is relatively low. Smallpox is not notably infectious in the prodromal period and viral shedding is usually delayed until the appearance of the rash, which is often accompanied by lesions in the mouth and pharynx. The virus can be transmitted throughout the course of the illness, but is most frequent during the first week of the rash, when most of the skin lesions are intact. Infectivity wanes in 7 to 10 days when scabs form over the lesions, but the infected person is contagious until the last smallpox scab falls off.
Smallpox is highly contagious, but generally spreads more slowly and less widely than some other viral diseases, perhaps because transmission requires close contact and occurs after the onset of the rash. The overall rate of infection is also affected by the short duration of the infectious stage. In temperate areas, the number of smallpox infections were highest during the winter and spring. In tropical areas, seasonal variation was less evident and the disease was present throughout the year. Age distribution of smallpox infections depends on acquired immunity. Vaccination immunity declines over time and is probably lost within thirty years. Smallpox is not known to be transmitted by insects or animals and there is no asymptomatic carrier state.
- Directly from person to person. Direct transmission of the virus requires fairly prolonged face-to-face contact. The virus can be transmitted through the air by droplets that escape when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.
- Indirectly from an infected person. In rare instances, airborne virus can spread farther, possibly through the ventilation system in a building, infecting people in other rooms or on other floors.
- Via contaminated items. Smallpox can also spread through contact with contaminated clothing and bedding, although the risk of infection from these sources is less common.
- As a terrorist weapon, potentially. A deliberate release of smallpox is a remote threat. However, because any release of the virus could spread the disease quickly, government officials have taken numerous precautions to protect against this possibility, such as stockpiling smallpox vaccine.
The earliest procedure used to prevent smallpox was inoculation (known as variolation after the introduction of smallpox vaccine to avoid possible confusion), which likely occurred in India, Africa, and China well before the practice arrived in Europe. However, the idea that inoculation originated in India has been challenged, as few of the ancient Sanskrit medical texts described the process of inoculation. Accounts of inoculation against smallpox in China can be found as early as the late 10th century, and the procedure was widely practiced by the 16th century, during the Ming dynasty. If successful, inoculation produced lasting immunity to smallpox. However, because the person was infected with variola virus, a severe infection could result, and the person could transmit smallpox to others. Variolation had a 0.5–2 percent mortality rate, considerably less than the 20–30 percent mortality rate of the disease.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed smallpox inoculation during her stay in the Ottoman Empire, writing detailed accounts of the practice in her letters, and enthusiastically promoted the procedure in England upon her return in 1718. In 1721, Cotton Mather and colleagues provoked controversy in Boston by inoculating hundreds. In 1796, Edward Jenner, a doctor in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, rural England, discovered that immunity to smallpox could be produced by inoculating a person with material from a cowpox lesion. Cowpox is a poxvirus in the same family as variola. Jenner called the material used for inoculation vaccine, from the root word vacca, which is Latin for cow. The procedure was much safer than variolation, and did not involve a risk of smallpox transmission. Vaccination to prevent smallpox was soon practiced all over the world. During the 19th century, the cowpox virus used for smallpox vaccination was replaced by vaccinia virus. Vaccinia is in the same family as cowpox and variola, but is genetically distinct from both. The origin of vaccinia virus and how it came to be in the vaccine are not known.
The current formulation of smallpox vaccine is a live virus preparation of infectious vaccinia virus. The vaccine is given using a bifurcated (two-pronged) needle that is dipped into the vaccine solution. The needle is used to prick the skin (usually the upper arm) a number of times in a few seconds. If successful, a red and itchy bump develops at the vaccine site in three or four days. In the first week, the bump becomes a large blister (called a "Jennerian vesicle") which fills with pus, and begins to drain. During the second week, the blister begins to dry up and a scab forms. The scab falls off in the third week, leaving a small scar.
The antibodies induced by vaccinia vaccine are cross-protective for other orthopoxviruses, such as monkeypox, cowpox, and variola (smallpox) viruses. Neutralizing antibodies are detectable 10 days after first-time vaccination, and seven days after revaccination. Historically, the vaccine has been effective in preventing smallpox infection in 95 percent of those vaccinated. Smallpox vaccination provides a high level of immunity for three to five years and decreasing immunity thereafter. If a person is vaccinated again later, immunity lasts even longer. Studies of smallpox cases in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that the fatality rate among persons vaccinated less than 10 years before exposure was 1.3 percent; it was 7 percent among those vaccinated 11 to 20 years prior, and 11 percent among those vaccinated 20 or more years prior to infection. By contrast, 52 percent of unvaccinated persons died.
There are side effects and risks associated with the smallpox vaccine. In the past, about 1 out of 1,000 people vaccinated for the first time experienced serious, but non-life-threatening, reactions, including toxic or allergic reaction at the site of the vaccination (erythema multiforme), spread of the vaccinia virus to other parts of the body, and to other individuals. Potentially life-threatening reactions occurred in 14 to 500 people out of every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time. Based on past experience, it is estimated that 1 or 2 people in 1 million (0.000198 percent) who receive the vaccine may die as a result, most often the result of postvaccinial encephalitis or severe necrosis in the area of vaccination (called progressive vaccinia).
Given these risks, as smallpox became effectively eradicated and the number of naturally occurring cases fell below the number of vaccine-induced illnesses and deaths, routine childhood vaccination was discontinued in the United States in 1972, and was abandoned in most European countries in the early 1970s. Routine vaccination of health care workers was discontinued in the U.S. in 1976, and among military recruits in 1990 (although military personnel deploying to the Middle East and Korea still receive the vaccination). By 1986, routine vaccination had ceased in all countries. It is now primarily recommended for laboratory workers at risk for occupational exposure.
The clinical definition of smallpox is an illness with acute onset of fever equal to or greater than 38.3 °C (101 °F) followed by a rash characterized by firm, deep seated vesicles or pustules in the same stage of development without other apparent cause. If a clinical case is observed, smallpox is confirmed using laboratory tests.
Microscopically, poxviruses produce characteristic cytoplasmic inclusions, the most important of which are known as Guarnieri bodies, and are the sites of viral replication. Guarnieri bodies are readily identified in skin biopsies stained with hematoxylin and eosin, and appear as pink blobs. They are found in virtually all poxvirus infections but the absence of Guarnieri bodies cannot be used to rule out smallpox. The diagnosis of an orthopoxvirus infection can also be made rapidly by electron microscopic examination of pustular fluid or scabs. However, all orthopoxviruses exhibit identical brick-shaped virions by electron microscopy. However, if particles with the characteristic morphology of herpesviruses are seen this will eliminate smallpox and other orthopoxvirus infections.
Definitive laboratory identification of variola virus involves growing the virus on chorioallantoic membrane (part of a chicken embryo) and examining the resulting pock lesions under defined temperature conditions. Strains may be characterized by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis. Serologic tests and enzyme linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA), which measure variola virus-specific immunoglobulin and antigen have also been developed to assist in the diagnosis of infection.
Chickenpox was commonly confused with smallpox in the immediate post-eradication era. Chickenpox and smallpox can be distinguished by several methods. Unlike smallpox, chickenpox does not usually affect the palms and soles. Additionally, chickenpox pustules are of varying size due to variations in the timing of pustule eruption: smallpox pustules are all very nearly the same size since the viral effect progresses more uniformly. A variety of laboratory methods are available for detecting chickenpox in evaluation of suspected smallpox cases
The overall case-fatality rate for ordinary-type smallpox is about 30 percent, but varies by pock distribution: ordinary type-confluent is fatal about 50–75 percent of the time, ordinary-type semi-confluent about 25–50 percent of the time, in cases where the rash is discrete the case-fatality rate is less than 10 percent. The overall fatality rate for children younger than 1 year of age is 40–50 percent. Hemorrhagic and flat types have the highest fatality rates. The fatality rate for flat-type is 90 percent or greater and nearly 100 percent is observed in cases of hemorrhagic smallpox. The case-fatality rate for variola minor is 1 percent or less. There is no evidence of chronic or recurrent infection with variola virus.
In fatal cases of ordinary smallpox, death usually occurs between the tenth and sixteenth days of the illness. The cause of death from smallpox is not clear, but the infection is now known to involve multiple organs. Circulating immune complexes, overwhelming viremia, or an uncontrolled immune response may be contributing factors. In early hemorrhagic smallpox, death occurs suddenly about six days after the fever develops. Cause of death in hemorrhagic cases involved heart failure, sometimes accompanied by pulmonary edema. In late hemorrhagic cases, high and sustained viremia, severe platelet loss and poor immune response were often cited as causes of death. In flat smallpox modes of death are similar to those in burns, with loss of fluid, protein and electrolytes beyond the capacity of the body to replace or acquire, and fulminating sepsis.
Complications of smallpox arise most commonly in the respiratory system and range from simple bronchitis to fatal pneumonia. Respiratory complications tend to develop on about the eighth day of the illness and can be either viral or bacterial in origin. Secondary bacterial infection of the skin is a relatively uncommon complication of smallpox. When this occurs, the fever usually remains elevated.
Other complications include encephalitis (1 in 500 patients), which is more common in adults and may cause temporary disability; permanent pitted scars, most notably on the face; and complications involving the eyes (2 percent of all cases). Pustules can form on the eyelid, conjunctiva, and cornea, leading to complications such as conjunctivitis, keratitis, corneal ulcer, iritis, iridocyclitis, and optic atrophy. Blindness results in approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of eyes affected with keratitis and corneal ulcer. Hemorrhagic smallpox can cause subconjunctival and retinal hemorrhages. In 2 to 5 percent of young children with smallpox, virions reach the joints and bone, causing osteomyelitis variolosa. Lesions are symmetrical, most common in the elbows, tibia, and fibula, and characteristically cause separation of an epiphysis and marked periosteal reactions. Swollen joints limit movement, and arthritis may lead to limb deformities, ankylosis, malformed bones, flail joints, and stubby fingers.
Smallpox vaccination within three days of exposure will prevent or significantly lessen the severity of smallpox symptoms in the vast majority of people. Vaccination four to seven days after exposure can offer some protection from disease or may modify the severity of disease. Other than vaccination, treatment of smallpox is primarily supportive, such as wound care and infection control, fluid therapy, and possible ventilator assistance. Flat and hemorrhagic types of smallpox are treated with the same therapies used to treat shock, such as fluid resuscitation. People with semi-confluent and confluent types of smallpox may have therapeutic issues similar to patients with extensive skin burns.
No drug is currently approved for the treatment of smallpox. However, antiviral treatments have improved since the last large smallpox epidemics, and studies suggest that the antiviral drug cidofovir might be useful as a therapeutic agent. The drug must be administered intravenously, however, and may cause serious kidney toxicity
- Mayo clinic