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Essay on the Issues of Smallpox: General Overview and Influence on the World

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Yearly we are told to go receive our annual flu shot, and when we are cut by metal or bitten by a dog we are sent to get a tetanus shot or a rabies shot. When you are born you are given a vaccination for Hepatitis B, but what evoked the idea of such practices?

Vaccines were created to help fight viruses, also known as viral diseases that attack the human body. Viruses are very complicated parasites and they are extremely small. These parasites are made up of four main parts: an envelope to protect the virus with glycoproteins on the outside for attachment, the capsid or protein coat inside the envelope, and the DNA or RNA segments that are held inside the capsid that make up the virus. Viruses are actually not alive, they can not reproduce or metabolize without a host cell. A virus works by entering the body and finding live host cells and, since they need the host cell to live, the virus attaches to it. After the virus has attached to the cell, the virus will inject its own DNA/RNA into the host cell. The host cell will then copy the DNA/RNA and protein coats that they are held in. Eventually, the cell will break apart and this action will spread new virus cells throughout the body for the same process to repeat. Viruses are tricky because they basically have to be caught before initial infection. The immune system is the only true defense that one has against viruses, but there are ways to boost the immune system, and that is where the idea of vaccines came from. Vaccines are made today by using the capsid to introduce the virus formation to the immune system. The protein coat won’t harm the immune system. In fact, it helps it to make antibodies so that if one was introduced to the virus the immune system knows how to fight it off quickly and efficiently. Smallpox was a very big agent in the discovery of all of these ideas. The virus smallpox changed the world by introducing ideas that have helped the world develop into what it is today.

Smallpox is an infectious disease that is well known around the world. Its scientific name is Variola major virus and it is well known for being an epidemic, a spreading of disease or virus in a certain area, that later turned into a pandemic, a worldwide virus or disease. The virus is hard to track back in time because its occurrences started happening a very long time ago, and a lot of the sicknesses were not documented, but it is believed to have originated in Africa from which it spread to other civilizations through trade. Things like the Nile River and the Silk Road probably lead to the spreading through China, and from China to Europe. The virus was then brought to the Americas’ by travelers from the region. For example, “Spaniards brought the virus over during their explorations and conquests, and Europeans brought it through explorations of new territory” (“Smallpox”). The virus being brought to these areas only made matters worse because these people had no natural immunity. Natural immunity occurs when one is exposed, even slightly, to a bacterium or virus, and these indigenous populations had no natural immunity built up. In fact, in the article “Smallpox Devastates Indigenous Populations” the author states that “Introduced into the New World by Spanish explorers and African slaves, smallpox killed as much as 75 to 90 percent of the indigenous population, which had no natural immunity to the disease”(1218-1219). Eventually, smallpox could be found all over the world, and it needed to be stopped. Terrible epidemics broke out all over the world and “In 1721, nearly half the residents of Boston (Massachusetts) contracted the disease, establishing the record for the worst epidemic to hit the New England town” (“Smallpox”). Smallpox was becoming a very big issue and methods for stopping the virus needed to be found.

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As smallpox spread, new ideas arose about how to fight off the infection. Many people during this day in age didn’t actually know what a virus was. Scientist also could not look at viruses under a light microscope because viruses are too small, so smallpox was not known to be a virus until the electron microscope was created. People started to come up with their own means of fighting the virus. One way, was used by the Chinese, was when “they had a practice to grind the scabs of a smallpox victim and blow the powder through a tube into the nose of a healthy person. People inoculated in this way would suffer a brief illness themselves and would be contagious for a period, and a few would contract a serious infection and die; but the risk of dying was far less than in a smallpox epidemic (roughly 2 percent, compared with 20 to 30 percent), and the benefit of immunity was clear” (“Smallpox”). This action is similar to receiving FluMist through the nose to get immunity rather than through a needle, though the practice of the Chinese was not nearly as safe as what FluMist is today. The reason the practice worked was because they used scabs that had fallen off so it was a weakened form of the virus, it acted as a less strong agent that was easier for the immune system to create antibodies for. This is why the death rate was decreased so much by this practice. Another mean to try to cure those who had the virus was through bloodletting. The idea was “the general approach of 17th-century English physician Thomas Sydenham, which included procedures such as bloodletting, induction of vomiting, and administration of enemas in order to ‘keep the inflammation of the blood within due bounds.’”(“Smallpox”). Bloodletting wasn’t the most practical because the virus spreads through the lymph nodes and the white blood cells in your bloodstream. The person would most likely die of bleeding to death if bloodletting was continued for long periods of time to try to flush the body of toxins. There was one more way than many people used to try to fight the virus before smallpox allowed for the first vaccine to be created. Inoculation was the closest thing to a vaccine at the time. This practice was the most accepted practice throughout Europe and it allowed for some relaxation. After Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced the practice to Europe, a lot of people started to get Inoculated. The process of the procedure involves the pustule of a victim being cut open to get the virus onto a knife and from there the same knife is used to cut another victim, therefore introducing a weakened strain of the virus to the one who has been cut. Inoculation still would probably be used today if not for the fact that it became unsafe. In the article “Smallpox”, found in Gale in Context, the author states that “inoculation was a double-edged sword. Because few people died from inoculated smallpox, they dropped their defenses and failed to take quarantine precautions; a mild case of inoculated smallpox was still contagious and could spawn a deadly natural epidemic. There were also side effects from these inoculations, such as blindness, tuberculosis, eye diseases, and disfiguring pock marks” (“Smallpox”). The world needed a better solution that could be controlled easier, but what could we find?

The answer to the world’s problems came from Dr. Edward Jenner. Jenner was a European scientist who found interest in the virus. He was interested in finding newer and safer ways to protect against the deadly virus. Jenner then developed an idea based off of observation that would later lead to an experiment. Jenner used the scientific method to create the first vaccine. He had “noticed that cattle handlers infected with a related disease called cowpox did not contract smallpox” (Shmaefsky 199-202). This idea lead to a hypothesis that most likely resembled: If I inoculate someone with cowpox, then they will be immune to smallpox because the milkmaids I observed are immune to smallpox, and they have had cowpox. From this point, Jenner conducted an experiment. James Phipps was inoculated with cowpox found on a milkmaids hand, and after a few days, James was introduced to natural smallpox. James had no reaction to the smallpox, and the first vaccination had been made. All pox viruses are in the same family, so smallpox and cowpox must be similar if cowpox works to get the immune system to create smallpox antibodies. Jenner’s experiments allowed for the world to begin the fight against smallpox.

Through the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO) and their vaccination programs, the world was eventually deemed naturally created smallpox free. Sadly, the world still fears smallpox. Even after smallpox was eradicated, the world kept stock of the virus “Stocks of variola major were kept in only two countries, the United States and Russia, which had cultivated the virus as part of their biological weapons programs during the Cold War” (“Smallpox”). There are many fears that smallpox might be used as a biological weapon to inflict serious harm onto a country or certain group of people. Some people debate on if smallpox is an actual candidate for a biological weapon or not. For example, “Dr. Rick Hall, of the Centre for Applied Microbiological Research, said that there would have to be a means of getting the virus into the living cells, and out again, and it would have to be stored so that it wouldn’t degrade – for example, by freezing it. By contrast, anthrax is easy to cultivate in a fermentation brew, like making beer and is easy to store in its spore form”(Laurance 3). Smallpox would be hard to cultivate and come by, but if obtained it could still become extremely dangerous. Also, bioterrorism would be more successful with a virus vs a disease because diseases can be treated with antibiotics. Juli Berwald stated otherwise by saying “The variola virus is extremely virulent and is among the most dangerous of all the potential biological weapons” in her article “Variola Virus” ( 226-227). When looking at the facts about smallpox, it seems to be a strong possible agent for a bioterrorism attack, and if one of these attacks was to occur, may the storage of the virus allow for vaccines to save us all.

In the end, smallpox has changed the world for the better and for the worst. If not for smallpox, we might not have ever made the biological discoveries that we did such as vaccines. Smallpox also brought the world together in the fight to eradicate it, but if a terrorist attack were to occur using the virus, then the world could be torn apart. The world would be very different today if not for smallpox and Edward Jenner’s experiments. The next time you get a vaccine, think about the hard work and trial and error that allowed you to be protected from viruses.

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Essay on the Issues of Smallpox: General Overview and Influence on the World. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
“Essay on the Issues of Smallpox: General Overview and Influence on the World.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022,
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