Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Smallpox

We had thought we were safe from smallpox
And that samples were safe behind locks
But a store had some vials
Left over from trials
Insecure and just placed in a box.

Edward Jenner (1749–1823)
Smallpox was a very serious contagious disease which was estimated to kill 400,000 Europeans a year in the latter part of the 18th century. It had been observed that dairymaids, who had had cow pox appeared to be immune from smallpox and Edward Jenner discovered by using cow pox it was possible to be protected against the disease by vaccination.  Following a worldwide campaign the World Health Organisation finally declared that smallpox had been eradicated in December 1979. It is the only infectious disease where this has happened.

The last recorded death from smallpox was in 1978, as a result of an incident in a laboratory in Birmingham, UK, and as a result it was agreed that all stocks of the virus would be destroyed with the exception of samples to be retained in two WHO laboratories, one in the USA and the other in Russia.

Well that was what was meant to happen. At the beginning of July the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, announced that that employees discovered vials labeled ”variola,” commonly known as smallpox, in an unused portion of a storage room in a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory located on the NIH Bethesda campus. The sample apparently had apparently been in the store since the 1950s and is now in a high containment facility and may have already been destroyed.

An additional danger is that smallpox could be used as a weapon - and the earliest recorded attempt was during the French and Indian wars (1754-63) when William Trent gave representatives of the besieging enemy two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect. Both the USA and Japan carried out research during the Second World War and Russia set up a smallpox weapons factory in 1947, and was reported to have a large stockpile in 1992. However the virus has had its DNA sequence synthesized so even if all stocks were destroyed it would be technically possible to recreate it.

The subject of serious infectious diseases spreading in a world where so many people travel is highlighted by the news today that the UK Government are to hold a high level "Cobra" meeting to discuss the dangers of the deadly Ebola virus coming to England.

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