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Smallpox was a highly infectious, deadly disease that has now been entirely removed from the world through successful vaccination. Smallpox left terrible scars on people who caught it.

What was smallpox?

Smallpox was a serious disease caused by the variola virus. It was very contagious and used to kill millions of people worldwide before the World Health Organization (WHO) began an international immunisation campaign.

The WHO announced that smallpox had been eradicated in 1979 — the only infectious disease to have been completely wiped out worldwide. The last case in Australia occurred in 1938, while the last reported 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 the Russian Federation.

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 were the symptoms of smallpox?

Smallpox was spread from person to person by close contact. Infected people suddenly developed a fever, headaches, back pain, chills, vomiting and a rash of blisters which spread from the face and arms down the body to the legs.

What were the treatments for smallpox?

There was no treatment for smallpox. It was fatal in about 3 in every 10 people who caught it. The disease was wiped out through vaccination.

Vaccination (introducing material under the skin to protect against disease) was developed after an 18th-century doctor, Edward Jenner, noticed that milkmaids hardly ever caught smallpox. He guessed it was because they were protected by being exposed to another mild disease, cowpox. Jenner deliberately infected his gardener’s son with cowpox and then showed he was immune to repeated exposure to smallpox.

If there was ever an outbreak, how would it be dealt with?

The Australian Department of Health has stockpiled the smallpox vaccine to use in case there was ever an outbreak. The disease would be controlled by vaccinating anyone who came into contact with someone who was infected.

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Last reviewed: July 2020

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