Preserve Smallpox Virus, U.N Decides

May 29, 2011 By Deepa Gopal
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The World Health Organization (W.H.O), a branch of the United Nations that is responsible for public health, has decided to hold off destroying the small supplies of smallpox virus held in United States and Russia yet again. After two days of intense debate in Geneva Switzerland, it was decided that companies in both countries need more time to research vaccines and drugs in case the disease should come back. 

One of the concerns among the committee members was bio-terrorism -- where a rogue government or group may use the virus to mount an attack on another country. Many African countries that had earlier supported destruction of the virus, joined the camp to extend the life of the smallpox virus until 2014 for fear of monkeypox -- a disease caused by a virus from the smallpox family.

What is Smallpox?

Smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases that was finally eradicated in 1980. It is caused by the variola virus. Besides fever and headaches, it causes an intense rash that killed nearly one-third of people affected. It was first recorded nearly 3000 years ago and is believed to have originated in Egypt or India. The earliest evidence of smallpox appears on the faces of Egyptian mummies -- such as Ramses V! 

It was also noted that survivors of the disease became immune to further attacks of smallpox. The idea of using live virus for producing immunity was born. Inoculation -- or a process by which virus from an infected person's rash was injected under the skin of a healthy individual, was practiced in China, India and Africa much before Jenner's discovery. Jenner is credited with the discovery of the vaccine in 1796 after observing that dairymaids who suffered from cowpox, were immune to smallpox virus. 

A mild form of virus..

Now, we receive vaccinations against all forms of diseases starting from early childhood. So how does a vaccine work? 

A vaccine contains a killed or weakened part of a germ that is responsible for infection. Because the germ has been killed or weakened before it is used to make the vaccine, it can not make the person sick. When a person receives a vaccine, the body reacts by making protective substances called "antibodies". The antibodies stay for a long time and remember how to fight off the germs, should they enter the body at a later time. In other words, vaccines expose people safely to germs, so that they can become protected from the disease without falling sick themselves.

Some vaccines only last for a few years and need booster shots periodically, whereas others such as flu vaccines are needed each year.