Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by one of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor. The last naturally occurring case was diagnosed in October 1977, and the World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of the disease in 1980. The risk of death after contracting the disease was about 30%, with higher rates among babies. Often those who survived had extensive scarring of their skin, and some were left blind.

The initial symptoms of the disease included fever and vomiting. This was followed by formation of ulcers in the mouth and a skin rash. Over a number of days the skin rash turned into characteristic fluid-filled blisters with a dent in the center. The bumps then scabbed over and fell off, leaving scars. The disease was spread between people or via contaminated objects. Prevention was achieved mainly through the smallpox vaccine. Once the disease had developed, certain antiviral medication may have helped.

The origin of smallpox is unknown; however, the earliest evidence of the disease dates to the 3rd century BCE in Egyptian mummies. The disease historically occurred in outbreaks. In 18th-century Europe, it is estimated that 400,000 people died from the disease per year, and that one-third of all cases of blindness were due to smallpox. Smallpox is estimated to have killed up to 300 million people in the 20th century and around 500 million people in the last 100 years of its existence, as well as six monarchs.As recently as 1967, 15 million cases occurred a year.

Inoculation for smallpox appears to have started in China around the 1500s. Europe adopted this practice from Asia in the first half of the 18th century. In 1796 Edward Jenner introduced the modern smallpox vaccine. In 1967, the WHO intensified efforts to eliminate the disease. Smallpox is one of two infectious diseases to have been eradicated, the other being rinderpest in 2011. The term "smallpox" was first used in Britain in the early 16th century to distinguish the disease from syphilis, which was then known as the "great pox". Other historical names for the disease include pox, speckled monster, and red plague.



Case fatality rate (CFR) and frequency of smallpox by type and vaccination status according to Rao case study
Type of disease Ordinary Confluent Ordinary Semiconfluent Ordinary Discrete Modified Flat Early Hemorrhagic Late hemorrhagic
Vaccinated CFR 26.3% 8.4% 0.7% 0% 66.7% 100% 89.8%
Unvaccinated CFR 62% 37% 9.3% 0% 96.5% 100% 96.8%
Vaccinated Frequency 4.6% 7% 58.4% 25.3% 1.3% 1.4% 2.0%
Unvaccinated Frequency 22.8% 23.9% 42.1% 2.1% 6.7% 0.7% 1.7%

There were two forms of the smallpox virus. Variola major was the severe and most common form, with a more extensive rash and higher fever. It could result in confluent smallpox, which had a high death rate of about 30%. Variola minor was a less common presentation, causing a less severe disease, typically discrete smallpox, with historical death rates of 1% or less. Subclinical (asymptomatic) infections with Variola virus were noted but were not common. In addition, a form called variola sine eruptione (smallpox without rash) was seen generally in vaccinated persons. This form was marked by a fever that occurred after the usual incubation period and could be confirmed only by antibody studies or, rarely, by viral culture. In addition, there were two very rare and fulminating types of smallpox, the malignant and hemorrhagic forms, which were usually fatal.

Signs and symptoms

A child showing rash due to ordinary-type smallpox (variola major)

The initial symptoms were similar to other viral diseases that are still extant, such as influenza and the common cold: fever of at least 38.3 °C (101 °F), muscle pain, malaise, headache and fatigue. As the digestive tract was commonly involved, nausea, vomiting and backache often occurred. The early prodromal stage usually lasted 2–4 days. By days 12–15, the first visible lesions – small reddish spots called enanthem – appeared on mucous membranes of the mouth, tongue, palate, and throat, and temperature fell to near-normal. These lesions rapidly enlarged and ruptured, releasing large amounts of virus into the saliva.

Smallpox virus tended to attack skin cells, causing the characteristic pimples, or macules, associated with the disease. A rash developed on the skin 24 to 48 hours after lesions on the mucous membranes appeared. Typically the macules first appeared on the forehead, then rapidly spread to the whole face, proximal portions of extremities, the trunk, and lastly to distal portions of extremities. The process took no more than 24 to 36 hours, after which no new lesions appeared. At this point, variola major infection could take several very different courses, which resulted in four types of smallpox disease based on the Rao classification: ordinary, modified, malignant (or flat), and hemorrhagic smallpox. Historically, ordinary smallpox had an overall fatality rate of about 30%, and the malignant and hemorrhagic forms were usually fatal. The incubation period between contraction and the first obvious symptoms of the disease was around 12 days.


Ninety percent or more of smallpox cases among unvaccinated persons were of the ordinary type. In this form of the disease, by the second day of the rash the macules had become raised papules. By the third or fourth day, the papules had filled with an opalescent fluid to become vesicles. This fluid became opaque and turbid within 24–48 hours, resulting in pustules.

By the sixth or seventh day, all the skin lesions had become pustules. Between seven and ten days the pustules had matured and reached their maximum size. The pustules were sharply raised, typically round, tense, and firm to the touch. The pustules were deeply embedded in the dermis, giving them the feel of a small bead in the skin. Fluid slowly leaked from the pustules, and by the end of the second week, the pustules had deflated and began to dry up, forming crusts or scabs. By day 16–20 scabs had formed over all of the lesions, which had started to flake off, leaving depigmented scars.

Ordinary smallpox generally produced a discrete rash, in which the pustules stood out on the skin separately. The distribution of the rash was most dense on the face, denser on the extremities than on the trunk, and denser on the distal parts of the extremities than on the proximal. The palms of the hands and soles of the feet were involved in most cases. Sometimes, the blisters merged into sheets, forming a confluent rash, which began to detach the outer layers of skin from the underlying flesh. Patients with confluent smallpox often remained ill even after scabs had formed over all the lesions. In one case series, the case-fatality rate in confluent smallpox was 62 percent.


Referring to the character of the eruption and the rapidity of its development, modified smallpox occurred mostly in previously vaccinated people. It is rare in unvaccinated people, with 1–2% of cases being modified compared to around 25% in vaccinated people. In this form, the prodromal illness still occurred but may have been less severe than in the ordinary type. There was usually no fever during the evolution of the rash. The skin lesions tended to be fewer and evolved more quickly, were more superficial, and may not have shown the uniform characteristic of more typical smallpox. Modified smallpox was rarely, if ever, fatal. This form of variola major was more easily confused with chickenpox.


In malignant-type smallpox (also called flat smallpox) the lesions remained almost flush with the skin at the time when raised vesicles would have formed in the ordinary type. It is unknown why some people developed this type. Historically, it accounted for 5–10 percent of cases, and most (72 percent) were children. Malignant smallpox was accompanied by a severe prodromal phase that lasted 3–4 days, prolonged high fever, and severe symptoms of viremia. The prodromal symptoms continued even after the onset of rash. The rash on the mucous membranes (enanthem) was extensive. Skin lesions matured slowly, were typically confluent or semi-confluent, and by the seventh or eighth day they were flat and appeared to be buried in the skin. Unlike ordinary-type smallpox, the vesicles contained little fluid, were soft and velvety to the touch, and may have contained hemorrhages. Malignant smallpox was nearly always fatal. Often, a day or two before death, the lesions turned ashen gray, which, along with abdominal distension, was a bad prognostic sign. If the person recovered, the lesions gradually faded and did not form scars or scabs.


A man with severe hemorrhagic-type smallpox (Bangladesh, 1975)
29.jpg/196px-The_eye_in_haemorrhagic_smallpox_%26_The_eruption_in_variola_nigra_%28J._A._Philip%29.jpg" decoding="async" width="196" height="303" class="thumbimage" srcset="// 1.5x, // 2x" data-file-width="1010" data-file-height="1559">
Fig. 1; The eye in hemorrhagic smallpox; Fig. 2; The eruption in variola nigra

Hemorrhagic smallpox is a severe form accompanied by extensive bleeding into the skin, mucous membranes, gastrointestinal tract, and viscera. This form develops in approximately 2 percent of infections and occurs mostly in adults. Pustules do not typically form in hemorrhagic smallpox. Instead, bleeding occurs under the skin, making it look charred and black, hence this form of the disease is also referred to as variola nigra or "black pox." Hemorrhagic smallpox has very rarely been caused by Variola minor. While bleeding may occur in mild cases and not affect outcomes, hemorrhagic smallpox is typically fatal.


The early or fulminant form of hemorrhagic smallpox (referred to as purpura variolosa) begins with a prodromal phase characterized by a high fever, severe headache, and abdominal pain. The skin becomes dusky and erythematous, and this is rapidly followed by the development of petechiae and bleeding in the skin, conjunctiva and mucous membranes. Autopsy reveals petechiae and bleeding in the spleen, kidney, serous membranes, skeletal muscles, pericardium, liver, gonads and bladder. Death often occurs suddenly between the fifth and seventh days of illness, when only a few insignificant skin lesions are present. Some people survive a few days longer, during which time the skin detaches and fluid accumulates under it, rupturing at the slightest injury. Historically, this condition was frequently misdiagnosed, with the correct diagnosis made only at autopsy. It is more likely to occur in pregnant women than in the general population (approximately 16% of cases in unvaccinated pregnant women were early hemorrhagic smallpox, versus roughly 1% in nonpregnant women and adult males). The case fatality rate of early hemorrhagic smallpox approaches 100%.


There is also a later form of hemorrhagic smallpox (referred to as flat or late hemorrhagic smallpox, or variolosa pustula hemorrhagica). The prodrome is severe and similar to that observed in early hemorrhagic smallpox, and the fever persists throughout the course of the disease. Bleeding appears in the early eruptive period (but later than that seen in purpura variolosa), and the rash is often flat and does not progress beyond the vesicular stage. Sometimes the rash forms pustules which bleed at the base and then undergo the same process as in ordinary smallpox. This form of the disease is characterized by a decrease in all of the elements of the coagulation cascade and an increase in circulating antithrombin. This form of smallpox occurs in anywhere from 3 to 25 percent of fatal cases, depending on the virulence of the smallpox strain. Most people with the late-stage form die within 8 to 12 days of illness. Among the few who recover, the hemorrhagic lesions gradually disappear after a long period of convalescence. The case fatality rate for late hemorrhagic smallpox is 90 percent or greater.


Smallpox was caused by infection with Variola virus, which belongs to the family Poxviridae, subfamily Chordopoxvirinae, and genus Orthopoxvirus.


The date of the appearance of smallpox is not settled. It most likely evolved from a terrestrial African rodent virus between 68,000 and 16,000 years ago. The wide range of dates is due to the different records used to calibrate the molecular clock. One clade was the Variola major strains (the more clinically severe form of smallpox) which spread from Asia between 400 and 1,600 years ago. A second clade included both Alastrim minor (a phenotypically mild smallpox) described from the American continents and isolates from West Africa which diverged from an ancestral strain between 1,400 and 6,300 years before present. This clade further diverged into two subclades at least 800 years ago.

A second estimate has placed the separation of variola from Taterapox (an Orthopoxvirus of some African rodents including gerbils) at 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. This is consistent with archaeological and historical evidence regarding the appearance of smallpox as a human disease which suggests a relatively recent origin. If the mutation rate is assumed to be similar to that of the herpesviruses, the divergence date of variola from Taterapox has been estimated to be 50,000 years ago. While this is consistent with the other published estimates, it suggests that the archaeological and historical evidence is very incomplete. Better estimates of mutation rates in these viruses are needed.

Examination of a strain that dates from c. 1650 found that this strain was basal to the other presently sequenced strains. The mutation rate of this virus is well modeled by a molecular clock. Diversification of strains only occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Variola is a large brick-shaped virus measuring approximately 302 to 350 nanometers by 244 to 270 nm, with a single linear double stranded DNA genome 186 kilobase pairs (kbp) in size and containing a hairpin loop at each end. The two classic varieties of smallpox are variola major and variola minor.

Four orthopoxviruses cause infection in humans: variola, vaccinia, cowpox, and monkeypox. Variola infects only humans in nature, although primates and other animals have been infected in an experimental setting. Vaccinia, cowpox, and monkeypox viruses can infect both humans and other animals in nature.

The life cycle of poxviruses is complicated by having multiple infectious forms, with differing mechanisms of cell entry. Poxviruses are unique among DNA viruses in that they replicate in the cytoplasm of the cell rather than in the nucleus. In order to replicate, poxviruses produce a variety of specialized proteins not produced by other DNA viruses, the most important of which is a viral-associated DNA-dependent RNA polymerase.

Both enveloped and unenveloped virions are infectious. The viral envelope is made of modified Golgi membranes containing viral-specific polypeptides, including hemagglutinin. Infection with either variola major or variola minor confers immunity against the other.


Transmission occurred through inhalation of airborne Variola virus, usually droplets expressed from the oral, nasal, or pharyngeal mucosa of an infected person. It was transmitted from one person to another primarily through prolonged face-to-face contact with an infected person, usually within a distance of 1.8 m (6 feet), but could also be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects (fomites) such as bedding or clothing. Rarely, smallpox was spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains. The virus can cross the placenta, but the incidence of congenital smallpox was relatively low.Smallpox was not notably infectious in the prodromal period and viral shedding was usually delayed until the appearance of the rash, which was often accompanied by lesions in the mouth and pharynx. The virus can be transmitted throughout the course of the illness, but this happened most frequently during the first week of the rash, when most of the skin lesions were intact. Infectivity waned in 7 to 10 days when scabs formed over the lesions, but the infected person was contagious until the last smallpox scab fell off.

Smallpox was highly contagious, but generally spread more slowly and less widely than some other viral diseases, perhaps because transmission required close contact and occurred after the onset of the rash. The overall rate of infection was also affected by the short duration of the infectious stage. In temperate areas, the number of smallpox infections was highest during the winter and spring. In tropical areas, seasonal variation was less evident and the disease was present throughout the year. Age distribution of smallpox infections depended on acquired immunity. Vaccination immunity declined over time and was probably lost within thirty years. Smallpox was not known to be transmitted by insects or animals and there was no asymptomatic carrier state.


Once inhaled, the variola virus invaded the mucus membranes of the mouth, throat, and respiratory tract. From there, it migrated to regional lymph nodes, and began to multiply. In the initial growth phase, the virus seemed to move from cell to cell, but by around the 12th day, widespread lysis of infected cells occurred and the virus could be found in the bloodstream in large numbers, a condition known as viremia. This resulted in a second wave of multiplication in the spleen, bone marrow, and lymph nodes.


The clinical definition of ordinary smallpox is an illness with acute onset of fever equal to or greater than 38.3 °C (101 °F) followed by a rash characterized by firm, deep-seated vesicles or pustules in the same stage of development without other apparent cause. When a clinical case was observed, smallpox was confirmed using laboratory tests.

Microscopically, poxviruses produce characteristic cytoplasmic inclusion bodies, the most important of which are known as Guarnieri bodies, and are the sites of viral replication. Guarnieri bodies are readily identified in skin biopsies stained with hematoxylin and eosin, and appear as pink blobs. They are found in virtually all poxvirus infections but the absence of Guarnieri bodies could not be used to rule out smallpox. The diagnosis of an orthopoxvirus infection can also be made rapidly by electron microscopic examination of pustular fluid or scabs. All orthopoxviruses exhibit identical brick-shaped virions by electron microscopy. If particles with the characteristic morphology of herpesviruses are seen this will eliminate smallpox and other orthopoxvirus infections.

Definitive laboratory identification of Variola virus involved growing the virus on chorioallantoic membrane (part of a chicken embryo) and examining the resulting pock lesions under defined temperature conditions. Strains were characterized by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis. Serologic tests and enzyme linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA), which measured Variola virus-specific immunoglobulin and antigen were also developed to assist in the diagnosis of infection.

Chickenpox was commonly confused with smallpox in the immediate post-eradication era. Chickenpox and smallpox could be distinguished by several methods. Unlike smallpox, chickenpox does not usually affect the palms and soles. Additionally, chickenpox pustules are of varying size due to variations in the timing of pustule eruption: smallpox pustules are all very nearly the same size since the viral effect progresses more uniformly. A variety of laboratory methods were available for detecting chickenpox in the evaluation of suspected smallpox cases.


Components of a modern smallpox vaccination kit including the diluent, a vial of Dryvax vaccinia vaccine, and a bifurcated needle.

The earliest procedure used to prevent smallpox was inoculation with variola minor (known as variolation after the introduction of smallpox vaccine to avoid possible confusion), which likely occurred in India, Africa, and China well before the practice arrived in Europe. The idea that inoculation originated in India has been challenged, as few of the ancient Sanskrit medical texts described the process of inoculation. Accounts of inoculation against smallpox in China can be found as early as the late 10th century, and the procedure was widely practiced by the 16th century, during the Ming dynasty. If successful, inoculation produced lasting immunity to smallpox. Because the person was infected with Variola virus, a severe infection could result, and the person could transmit smallpox to others. Variolation had a 0.5–2 percent mortality rate, considerably less than the 20–30 percent mortality rate of the disease. Two reports on the Chinese practice of inoculation were received by the Royal Society in London in 1700; one by Dr. Martin Lister who received a report by an employee of the East India Company stationed in China and another by Clopton Havers.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed smallpox inoculation during her stay in the Ottoman Empire, writing detailed accounts of the practice in her letters, and enthusiastically promoted the procedure in England upon her return in 1718. According to Voltaire (1742), the Turks derived their use of inoculation from neighbouring Circassia. Voltaire does not speculate on where the Circassians derived their technique from, though he reports that the Chinese have practiced it "these hundred years". In 1721, Cotton Mather and colleagues provoked controversy in Boston by inoculating hundreds. In 1796, Edward Jenner, a doctor in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, rural England, discovered that immunity to smallpox could be produced by inoculating a person with material from a cowpox lesion. Cowpox is a poxvirus in the same family as variola. Jenner called the material used for inoculation vaccine from the root word vacca, which is Latin for cow. The procedure was much safer than variolation and did not involve a risk of smallpox transmission. Vaccination to prevent smallpox was soon practiced all over the world. During the 19th century, the cowpox virus used for smallpox vaccination was replaced by vaccinia virus. Vaccinia is in the same family as cowpox and variola, but is genetically distinct from both. The origin of vaccinia virus and how it came to be in the vaccine are not known.

An 1802 cartoon of the early controversy surrounding Edward Jenner's vaccination theory, showing using his cowpox-derived smallpox vaccine causing cattle to emerge from patients.

The current formulation of smallpox vaccine is a live virus preparation of infectious vaccinia virus. The vaccine is given using a bifurcated (two-pronged) needle that is dipped into the vaccine solution. The needle is used to prick the skin (usually the upper arm) a number of times in a few seconds. If successful, a red and itchy bump develops at the vaccine site in three or four days. In the first week, the bump becomes a large blister (called a "Jennerian vesicle") which fills with pus, and begins to drain. During the second week, the blister begins to dry up and a scab forms. The scab falls off in the third week, leaving a small scar.

The antibodies induced by vaccinia vaccine are cross-protective for other orthopoxviruses, such as monkeypox, cowpox, and variola (smallpox) viruses. Neutralizing antibodies are detectable 10 days after first-time vaccination, and seven days after revaccination. Historically, the vaccine has been effective in preventing smallpox infection in 95 percent of those vaccinated. Smallpox vaccination provides a high level of immunity for three to five years and decreasing immunity thereafter. If a person is vaccinated again later, immunity lasts even longer. Studies of smallpox cases in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that the fatality rate among persons vaccinated less than 10 years before exposure was 1.3 percent; it was 7 percent among those vaccinated 11 to 20 years prior, and 11 percent among those vaccinated 20 or more years prior to infection. By contrast, 52 percent of unvaccinated persons died.

A demonstration by medical personnel on use of a bifurcated needle to deliver the smallpox vaccine, 2002.

There are side effects and risks associated with the smallpox vaccine. In the past, about 1 out of 1,000 people vaccinated for the first time experienced serious, but non-life-threatening, reactions, including toxic or allergic reaction at the site of the vaccination (erythema multiforme), spread of the vaccinia virus to other parts of the body, and to other individuals. Potentially life-threatening reactions occurred in 14 to 500 people out of every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time. Based on past experience, it is estimated that 1 or 2 people in 1 million (0.000198 percent) who receive the vaccine may die as a result, most often the result of postvaccinial encephalitis or severe necrosis in the area of vaccination (called progressive vaccinia).

Given these risks, as smallpox became effectively eradicated and the number of naturally occurring cases fell below the number of vaccine-induced illnesses and deaths, routine childhood vaccination was discontinued in the United States in 1972 and was abandoned in most European countries in the early 1970s. Routine vaccination of health care workers was discontinued in the U.S. in 1976, and among military recruits in 1990 (although military personnel deploying to the Middle East and Korea still receive the vaccination). By 1986, routine vaccination had ceased in all countries. It is now primarily recommended for laboratory workers at risk for occupational exposure. However, the possibility of smallpox virus being used as a biological weapon has rekindled interest in the development of newer vaccines.


Smallpox vaccination within three days of exposure will prevent or significantly lessen the severity of smallpox symptoms in the vast majority of people. Vaccination four to seven days after exposure can offer some protection from disease or may modify the severity of disease. Other than vaccination, treatment of smallpox is primarily supportive, such as wound care and infection control, fluid therapy, and possible ventilator assistance. Flat and hemorrhagic types of smallpox are treated with the same therapies used to treat shock, such as fluid resuscitation. People with semi-confluent and confluent types of smallpox may have therapeutic issues similar to patients with extensive skin burns.

In July 2018, the Food and Drug Administration approved tecovirimat, the first drug approved for treatment of smallpox. Antiviral treatments have improved since the last large smallpox epidemics, and studies suggest that the antiviral drug cidofovir might be useful as a therapeutic agent. The drug must be administered intravenously, and may cause serious kidney toxicity.

ACAM2000 is a smallpox vaccine developed by Acambis. It was approved for use in the United States by the U.S. FDA on August 31, 2007. It contains live vaccinia virus, cloned from the same strain used in an earlier vaccine, Dryvax. While the Dryvax virus was cultured in the skin of calves and freeze-dried, ACAM2000s virus is cultured in kidney epithelial cells (Vero cells) from an African green monkey. Efficacy and adverse reaction incidence are similar to Dryvax. The vaccine is not routinely available to the US public; it is, however, used in the military and maintained in the Strategic National Stockpile.


Man with facial scarring and blindness due to smallpox

The mortality rate from variola minor is approximately 1%, while the mortality rate from variola major is approximately 30%.

Ordinary type-confluent is fatal about 50–75 percent of the time, ordinary-type semi-confluent about 25–50 percent of the time, in cases where the rash is discrete the case-fatality rate is less than 10 percent. The overall fatality rate for children younger than 1 year of age is 40–50 percent. Hemorrhagic and flat types have the highest fatality rates. The fatality rate for flat or late hemorrhagic type smallpox is 90 percent or greater and nearly 100 percent is observed in cases of early hemorrhagic smallpox. The case-fatality rate for variola minor is 1 percent or less. There is no evidence of chronic or recurrent infection with Variola virus. In cases of flat smallpox in vaccinated people, the condition was extremely rare but less lethal, with one case series showing a 66.7% death rate.

In fatal cases of ordinary smallpox, death usually occurs between the tenth and sixteenth days of the illness. The cause of death from smallpox is not clear, but the infection is now known to involve multiple organs. Circulating immune complexes, overwhelming viremia, or an uncontrolled immune response may be contributing factors. In early hemorrhagic smallpox, death occurs suddenly about six days after the fever develops. The cause of death in early hemorrhagic cases is commonly due to heart failure and pulmonary edema. In late hemorrhagic cases, high and sustained viremia, severe platelet loss and poor immune response were often cited as causes of death. In flat smallpox modes of death are similar to those in burns, with loss of fluid, protein and electrolytes, and fulminating sepsis.


Complications of smallpox arise most commonly in the respiratory system and range from simple bronchitis to fatal pneumonia. Respiratory complications tend to develop on about the eighth day of the illness and can be either viral or bacterial in origin. Secondary bacterial infection of the skin is a relatively uncommon complication of smallpox. When this occurs, the fever usually remains elevated.

Other complications include encephalitis (1 in 500 patients), which is more common in adults and may cause temporary disability; permanent pitted scars, most notably on the face; and complications involving the eyes (2 percent of all cases). Pustules can form on the eyelid, conjunctiva, and cornea, leading to complications such as conjunctivitis, keratitis, corneal ulcer, iritis, iridocyclitis, and atrophy of the optic nerve. Blindness results in approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of eyes affected with keratitis and corneal ulcer. Hemorrhagic smallpox can cause subconjunctival and retinal hemorrhages. In 2 to 5 percent of young children with smallpox, virions reach the joints and bone, causing osteomyelitis variolosa. Bony lesions are symmetrical, most common in the elbows, legs, and characteristically cause separation of the epiphysis and marked periosteal reactions. Swollen joints limit movement, and arthritis may lead to limb deformities, ankylosis, malformed bones, flail joints, and stubby fingers.

Between 65 and 80% of survivors are marked with deep pitted scars (pockmarks), most prominent on the face.


Disease emergence

Statue of Sopona, the Yoruba god thought to cause the disease

The earliest credible clinical evidence of smallpox is found in the descriptions of smallpox-like disease in medical writings from ancient India (as early as 1500 BCE), and China (1122 BCE), as well as a study of the Egyptian mummy of Ramses V, who died more than 3000 years ago (1145 BCE). It has been speculated that Egyptian traders brought smallpox to India during the 1st millennium BCE, where it remained as an endemic human disease for at least 2000 years. Smallpox was probably introduced into China during the 1st century CE from the southwest, and in the 6th century was carried from China to Japan. In Japan, the epidemic of 735–737 is believed to have killed as much as one-third of the population. At least seven religious deities have been specifically dedicated to smallpox, such as the god Sopona in the Yoruba religion in West Africa. In India, the Hindu goddess of smallpox, Shitala, was worshipped in temples throughout the country.

A different viewpoint is that smallpox emerged 1588 CE and the earlier reported cases were incorrectly identified as smallpox.

The timing of the arrival of smallpox in Europe and south-western Asia is less clear. Smallpox is not clearly described in either the Old or New Testaments of the Bible or in the literature of the Greeks or Romans. While some have identified the Plague of Athens – which was said to have originated in "Ethiopia" and Egypt – or the plague that lifted Carthage's 396 BCE siege of Syracuse – with smallpox, many scholars agree it is very unlikely such a serious disease as variola major would have escaped being described by Hippocrates if it had existed in the Mediterranean region during his lifetime.

While the Antonine Plague that swept through the Roman Empire in 165–180 CE may have been caused by smallpox, Saint Nicasius of Rheims became the patron saint of smallpox victims for having supposedly survived a bout in 450, and Saint Gregory of Tours recorded a similar outbreak in France and Italy in 580, the first use of the term variola; other historians speculate that Arab armies first carried smallpox from Africa into Southwestern Europe during the 7th and 8th centuries. In the 9th century the Persian physician, Rhazes, provided one of the most definitive descriptions of smallpox and was the first to differentiate smallpox from measles and chickenpox in his Kitab fi al-jadari wa-al-hasbah (The Book of Smallpox and Measles). During the Middle Ages several smallpox outbreaks occurred in Europe. However, smallpox had not become established there until the population growth and mobility marked by the Crusades allowed it to do so. By the 16th century, smallpox had become entrenched across most of Europe, where it had a mortality rate as high as 30 percent. This endemic occurrence of smallpox in Europe is of particular historical importance, as successive exploration and colonization by Europeans tended to spread the disease to other nations. By the 16th century, smallpox had become a predominant cause of morbidity and mortality throughout much of the world.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1555–1576), showing Nahuas of conquest-era central Mexico with smallpox.

There were no credible descriptions of smallpox-like disease in the Americas before the westward exploration by Europeans in the 15th century CE. Smallpox was introduced into the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1509, and into the mainland in 1520, when Spanish settlers from Hispaniola arrived in Mexico, inadvertently carrying smallpox with them. Because the native Amerindian population had no acquired immunity to this new disease, their peoples were decimated by epidemics. Such disruption and population losses were an important factor in the Spanish achieving conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas. Similarly, English settlement of the east coast of North America in 1633 in Plymouth, Massachusetts was accompanied by devastating outbreaks of smallpox among Native American populations, and subsequently among the native-born colonists. Case fatality rates during outbreaks in Native American populations were as high as 80–90%. Smallpox was introduced into Australia in 1789 and again in 1829; though colonial surgeons, who by 1829 were attempting to distinguish between smallpox and chickenpox (which could be almost equally fatal to Aborigines), were divided as to whether the 1829–1830 epidemic was chickenpox or smallpox. Although smallpox was never endemic on the continent, it has been described as the principal cause of death in Aboriginal populations between 1780 and 1870.

A person with smallpox in the United States, 1912

By the mid-18th century, smallpox was a major endemic disease everywhere in the world except in Australia and in small islands untouched by outside exploration. In 18th century Europe, smallpox was a leading cause of death, killing an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year. Up to 10 percent of Swedish infants died of smallpox each year, and the death rate of infants in Russia might have been even higher. The widespread use of variolation in a few countries, notably Great Britain, its North American colonies, and China, somewhat reduced the impact of smallpox among the wealthy classes during the latter part of the 18th century, but a real reduction in its incidence did not occur until vaccination became a common practice toward the end of the 19th century. Improved vaccines and the practice of re-vaccination led to a substantial reduction in cases in Europe and North America, but smallpox remained almost unchecked everywhere else in the world. By the mid-20th century, variola minor occurred along with variola major, in varying proportions, in many parts of Africa. Patients with variola minor experience only a mild systemic illness, are often ambulant throughout the course of the disease, and are therefore able to more easily spread disease. Infection with v. minor induces immunity against the more deadly variola major form. Thus, as v. minor spread all over the US, into Canada, the South American countries and Great Britain, it became the dominant form of smallpox, further reducing mortality rates.


Decade in which smallpox ceased to spread in each country
Vaccination during the Smallpox