Kalamaoo County

Public Health Preparedness


What Is Smallpox?
Smallpox is a serious, contagious, and sometimes fatal disease caused by a virus. The name smallpox comes from the Latin word for "spotted," and refers to the raised bumps that appear on the face and body of an infected person.

How is smallpox spread?
Smallpox is spread from person to person by coughing and sneezing. Becoming infected usually requires direct face-to-face with a sick person for an extended period of time.

Smallpox can also be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids, or contaminated objects such as bedding or clothing. In rare cases smallpox has been spread through the air in enclosed areas such as buildings, buses, and trains.

A person with smallpox is most likely to spread the disease during the first week of illness and is contagious until all scabs have fallen off (approximately three weeks).

What are the symptoms of smallpox?
It can take anywhere from seven to seventeen days for symptoms of smallpox to appear. Early symptoms are flu-like, and can include high fever, headache, tiredness, and back pain.

The initial symptoms of smallpox appear to be flu-like with high fever, headaches, tiredness, and backaches. About two to four days following the appearance of these symptoms, a rash will develop on the face, arms, and legs at the same time. Initially the rash is red and flat, then it progresses to a raised rash and forms a blister filled with a yellowish-white infectious fluid that will begin to crust over early in the second week. About three to four weeks later, scabs develop, separate, and fall off.

What is the treatment for smallpox?
There is no specific treatment for smallpox disease, but research is being conducted on new antiviral agents. Strict isolation of persons with smallpox is vital to prevent the spread of the disease.

Are there complications from smallpox?
The majority of persons with smallpox recover. Complications of smallpox may be the following: encephalitis (infection of brain tissue), keratitis (inflammation of the cornea of the eye), and blindness in about 1% of the cases. Many survivors have permanent scars over large areas of their body, especially their face.

Death occurs in up to 30% of the cases.

How common is smallpox?
The last naturally occurring case of smallpox in the world was in 1977. The disease has been considered eradicated since 1980.

How can smallpox be prevented?
The only way to prevent smallpox is the use of the smallpox vaccine. Routine vaccination of the American public against smallpox ended in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the United States. The level of protection, if any, among persons who were vaccinated before 1972 us uncertain; therefore, these persons are assumed to be susceptible.

The vaccine can lessen the severity of or even prevent illness if given within four days of exposure to the disease.

Can smallpox be used as a bioweapon?
Smallpox could be released in aerosol form, however the virus is fragile. In laboratory experiments, 90% of aerosolized smallpox virus dies within 24 hours. If an aerosol release of smallpox occurs, 90% of virus matter will be inactivated or dissipated in about 24 hours.

How do I get more information on smallpox?
Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site at http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/smallpox/ or the World Health Organization website at http://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/en/.

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