Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content


5-minute read

Key facts

  • Smallpox is a very contagious, serious viral illness that in the past killed millions of people worldwide.
  • Smallpox was eradicated from the world through vaccination.
  • There is no cure for smallpox, but vaccination can prevent you catching it.
  • The Australian Government has a smallpox emergency management plan to control a potential outbreak.
  • Monkeypox is a viral illness that is related to smallpox and has similar symptoms, but it is usually less severe, and most people get better.

What is smallpox?

Smallpox is a serious disease caused by the variola virus. It has now been entirely removed from the world through vaccination. It is very contagious and killed millions of people worldwide before the World Health Organization (WHO) began an international immunisation campaign.

In 1980 the WHO announced that smallpox had been eradicated. It was the first infectious disease to have been completely wiped out worldwide. The last case in Australia occurred in 1938. The last reported naturally occurring case anywhere in the word was in Somalia in 1977.

After the disease was officially eradicated, all remaining stocks of the virus worldwide were destroyed, apart from small amounts held in 2 secure laboratories in the United States and Russia.

No one is at risk of catching smallpox in Australia today. The only risk would be if the smallpox virus was used in an act of bioterrorism.

What are the symptoms of smallpox?

In the first few days of the illness, symptoms include:

After this, a rash of blisters develops in the mouth and spreads all over the body. The blisters crust over and form scabs. After about 3 weeks, the scabs fall off and leave scars.

What causes smallpox?

Smallpox spreads from person to person by close contact. It is transmitted by inhaling droplets exhaled by a sick person, or by touching surfaces contaminated by body fluids.

How is smallpox diagnosed?

There is no treatment for smallpox. In the past, it caused death in about 3 in every 10 people who caught it.

How is smallpox treated?

If someone were to catch smallpox, they would need fluids and pain-relieving medicines. Antibiotics would be given if the blisters became infected with bacteria. The unwell person and their contacts would be in isolation.

Can smallpox be prevented?

The disease was wiped out through vaccination. The smallpox vaccine is not given routinely anymore. However, if you receive the smallpox vaccine within 3 days of being exposed to the virus, it can prevent you getting sick.

The smallpox vaccine was the first successful vaccine in the world. It was developed by an 18th-century doctor, Edward Jenner, who noticed that milkmaids did not catch smallpox if they had previously had another mild disease, cowpox. Jenner showed that vaccination made people immune to smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine is made from the vaccinia virus. This is a related virus that cannot cause smallpox.

What are the complications of smallpox?

Smallpox can lead to:

If there were ever an outbreak, how would it be managed?

The Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care has a smallpox emergency management plan. Australia has a supply of the smallpox vaccine to use in case there is ever an outbreak.

The disease would be controlled by vaccinating and isolating anyone who came into contact with an infected person. This would include healthcare workers.

Is monkeypox the same as smallpox?

Monkeypox (or mpox) is a viral illness that is related to smallpox, but they are not the same virus. Monkeypox has similar symptoms to smallpox, but it is usually less severe and most people get better. However, it can potentially be a serious illness.

Resources and support

If there is a smallpox outbreak anywhere in the world, your local state or territory health department can provide information on what precautions to take.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Mpox (monkeypox)

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with the monkeypox virus. It belongs to the same family as the smallpox virus but generally causes a milder illness.

Read more on WA Health website

Mpox (formerly known as monkeypox) | NCIRS

Mpox vaccines:  Frequently asked questions  NCIRS fact sheets.

Read more on National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) website

Smallpox (Variola) fact sheet - Fact sheets

Smallpox (Variola) fact sheet

Read more on NSW Health website

Smallpox | SA Health

Smallpox, which was once a severe disease common around the world caused by the variola virus and is spread from person to person

Read more on SA Health website

Smallpox - Better Health Channel

Smallpox was once a feared and highly contagious viral disease.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Monkeypox: The Facts -

Health authorities are investigating a global outbreak of monkeypox.

Read more on myDr website

Smallpox | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

Find out how we define and monitor cases of smallpox, and where you can learn more about this disease.

Read more on Department of Health and Aged Care website

Do I need an mpox (monkeypox) vaccine and is it safe? | AusVaxSafety

Mpox (monkeypox) has been declared a communicable disease incident of national significance in Australia

Read more on National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) website

Mpox (monkeypox) | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

We are monitoring the mpox situation in Australia. We will update this page with the latest medical advice and official reports.

Read more on Department of Health and Aged Care website

MPOX (Monkeypox): Reduce your risk | ACON

Last reviewed: 30 November 2022   The situation with MPOX (monkeypox) in NSW is changing rapidly

Read more on ACON website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.