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What is Smallpox?

Smallpox was a serious disease that killed up to 30% of people infected with it. It was caused by a virus called VARIOLA which was spread from person to person via close contact. It caused a rash (that left scars when healed), fever, fatigue, severe headaches and backaches, and blindness.

Who Should Get Vaccinated?

Smallpox is now eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program. The last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949. The last naturally occurring case in the world was in Somalia in 1977. After the disease was eliminated from the world, routine vaccination against smallpox among the general public was stopped because it was no longer necessary for prevention.

The vaccine now protects people who work with smallpox or related viruses in a lab. Common thinking is now that countries hostile to the US might have the smallpox virus and could use this as a biological weapon. If that were to occur, the vaccine would protect healthcare workers from the disease while they vaccinated others with stockpiled vaccine.

The Smallpox Vaccine

The vaccine is made from the vaccinia virus, which is similar to the smallpox virus, but less harmful. It can protect people from smallpox. Getting the vaccine BEFORE exposure will protect most people from smallpox. Getting the vaccine within 3 days after exposure can prevent the disease or make it less severe. Getting the vaccine within a week after exposure can make the disease less severe. Protection lasts 3-5 years, and protection from severe illness or death can last 10 years or more.

After the Vaccine

A blister forms at the vaccination site, later develops a scab, and leaves a scar. Side effects can include pain and tenderness of the lymph nodes, itching at the vaccination site, malaise, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, and rarely an eye infection. In one case per million, the vaccine can cause death from encephalitis. After vaccination, the site should be kept covered until the scab falls off.

Who Should Not Get Vaccinated

People in the following categories should not receive the vaccine:

  • Those with a history of eczema (atopic dermatitis) or any skin condition that causes breaks in the skin
  • Anyone who has HIV/AIDS or another immune-weakening conditions
  • Cancer patients
  • Pregnant women or nursing mothers
  • Anyone under the age of 17
  • Anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to certain antibiotics or to a previous vaccination for smallpox.