Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Smallpox Changed the World

By Heather Whipps, LiveScience's History Columnist

Today it's a medical success story, but before it was eradicated, the smallpox virus spent more than 3,000 years decimating communities across the globe...

It is believed that smallpox first incubated 10,000 years ago in northern Africa, spreading slowly to the rest of the ancient world. Repeat epidemics of the highly contagious virus — which caused a grotesque rash, fever and often blindness — began popping up a few millennia later.

Aside from speckling the face of Ramses V, the pharaoh who succumbed to smallpox in 1156 B.C., the virus appears in contemporary texts from India and China. Approximately 30 percent of those infected with smallpox died, and the statistics were even worse for children. According to some ancient customs, newborn babies were often left unnamed until they, inevitably, contracted the disease and proved they could survive, historians say.

Smallpox continued to spread across Asia in the Middle Ages and reached Europe by A.D. 700, killing indiscriminately. Waves of epidemics wiped out large rural populations, but didn't spare royalty either: Queen Mary II of England, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, French King Louis XV and Tsar Peter II of Russia all died of the disease, the latter on the eve of his wedding.

Perhaps the most defenseless victims of smallpox were the Aztec and Inca Indians of the New World who, with no immunity to European diseases, were almost completely wiped out by the virus before Spanish conquistadors finished them off with weapons in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Read the rest of the article here.

Smallpox postules on patient's legs.

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