is a disease caused by a virus. At one time, it was one of the world’s most feared infections. Smallpox has no treatment or cure. It can be fatal. Smallpox is nearly nonexistent as a result of a worldwide vaccination effort. The last case in the US was in 1949. The last naturally occurring case in the world occurred in 1977. There have been no cases of smallpox reported anywhere. The vaccine is no longer given.
Because of bioterrorism threats, it’s important to remember the facts about smallpox.
Smallpox can be spread from person to person by direct, face-to-face contact. It can also be spread through bodily fluids or linens and clothing that have been contaminated. Smallpox can be spread through the air, although this is rare.
The primary symptoms include: High feverHeadacheBody achesVomiting
As the virus advances, a red rash appears on the tongue and in the mouth. The rash then spreads. Spots begin to break open. The rash spreads across the body. It turns from red spots into raised bumps. By day 4, the bumps fill with fluid and have a depression in the middle. Scabs form over all of the bumps.
The smallpox vaccine contains a live virus, called the vaccinia virus. This is related to smallpox. The vaccine is given as multiple pinpricks usually in the arm.
You should get the vaccine if you have come in contact with the virus or if you are at risk. The vaccine is not given to the general public. You will get the vaccine if you are in the military and work in high threat areas.
A live virus is injected into the skin. It is possible to spread it to other areas of the body, or even to other people. The injection site must be protected to prevent this from happening.
Common side effects of smallpox vaccine include: Rash and itchingFeverHeadacheTirednessSwollen lymph nodesBody achesSoreness in the arm
More serious, but less common side effects include: Inflammation of the heart muscle or sac around the heartSwelling of the brain or spinal cordInfection at the site of the vaccineSevere allergic reaction
The following people should not get vaccinated: People who have had a previous allergic reaction to the vaccine or any of its componentsPregnant or breastfeeding womenChildren less than 12 months old
or who have had a history of eczema or other skin conditions, such as
People with skin conditions, such as
—wait until healed before getting the vaccine
People with heart disease, heart conditions, multiple risk factors for heart disease, or
People with weakened immune systems (such as those who have received a transplant, have
, are receiving
treatment, or are taking medicines that suppress the immune system, including steroids)
Talk to your doctor to find out if the vaccine is safe for you.
If an outbreak happens, the US has a large supply of the smallpox vaccine to vaccinate the entire population.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Emergency preparedness and response. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/smallpox/vaccination/vaccine.asp. Accessed November 30, 2012.
Medication guide: Smallpox (vaccinia) vaccine, live. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at:
http://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/UCM142576.pdf. Updated October 2009. Accessed November 30, 2012.
Smallpox. World Health Organization website. Available at:
http://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/en. Accessed November 30, 2012.
Smallpox disease overview. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/smallpox/overview/disease-facts.asp. Updated February 6, 2007. Accessed November 30, 2012.
Last reviewed December 2014 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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