One of the biggest triumphs in public health history was the global elimination of smallpox more than 40 years ago. This ended a disease that had killed, blinded and disfigured people for at least 3,000 years.
Smallpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the variola virus, that had been around for centuries. It is believed to have originated in India and then spread to other parts of the world. In the 18th century, it was responsible for millions of deaths each year.
It is estimated that over 300 million people died of Smallpox in the twentieth century.
In 1967, the World Health Assembly made the decision to eradicate Smallpox from the face of the Earth.
This monumental task was accomplished by the late 1970s. The success of the Smallpox eradication campaign paved the way for other disease control initiatives, such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
The last known case of smallpox was reported in 1978, claiming the life of Janet Parker, who was believed to have become infected from the medical laboratory where she worked.
It was thus that the successful eradication of smallpox paved the way for monkeypox, a related virus that is much less deadly but can still be quite serious.
What is monkeypox and what are its symptoms?
Monkeypox is a viral infection that produces a fever and rash in humans and can be deadly in some cases.
It is closely related to the smallpox virus, although it is less contagious and has milder symptoms. According to the World Health Organization, the mortality rate for monkeypox in recent years has been between 3 percent and 6 percent, compared to about 30% for smallpox patients.
The main symptoms of monkeypox are fever, headaches, muscle pain, and a rash. The virus is spread through contact with the mucus, saliva, or infected materials from an infected animal, or through contact with an infected person.
The incubation period for the virus is between 5 and 21 days. The first stage of the illness, which lasts for 2 to 4 days, is characterized by fever, headaches, chills, and muscle aches. A few days later, the patient may develop a rash, which starts on the face and spreads to other parts of the body.
The monkeypox rash typically goes through three stages: first, small red spots appear on the face; second, the spots turn into blisters; and third, the blisters turn into scabs. In some cases, the patient may also develop lesions in the mouth, throat, and genitals.
Most people who contract monkeypox recover completely, but the virus can be deadly in some cases, particularly to young children and people with weakened immune systems. There is no specific treatment for monkeypox, but hospitalization and supportive care can help to improve the chances of recovery.
What are the origins of monkeypox?
Monkeypox was first identified in 1958 in laboratory monkeys in Copenhagen, Denmark. However, the virus is thought to have originated in Africa, where it infects a variety of animals, including rodents and primates.
The first human case of monkeypox was found in a 9-month-old boy in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The high smallpox immunization rates during this time period helped to keep the numbers low, but as that immunity waned, the numbers rose.
The WHO reported 54 cases between 1970 and 1979 and 338 cases between 1981 and 1986; the rise was likely the consequence of increased surveillance and case identification.
After causing outbreaks in dozens of nations this year, largely in Europe, monkeypox now poses a severe public health threat and serves as a reminder of how easily an infectious agent that first appears in one place can spread fast to other countries.
Why is the WHO going to change the name of monkeypox?
Serious concerns have been raised by scientists about the potential for stigma associated with the name of the virus, particularly given the incorrect association of the pox with Africa.
The current name of the monkeypox virus, Monkeypoxvirus (MPV), is derived from its original discovery in laboratory monkeys. Proposals include renaming the virus as hMPXV, but experts are still discussing different options. The new names being proposed reflect the fact that this zoonotic virus can infect both humans and non-human primates.
Although the media have been awash with photos of African patients with obvious signs of the monkeypox rash, it is important to remember that viruses know no geographic or political boundaries. As our world becomes ever more interconnected, it is crucial that we understand that such viruses are the concern of everyone.
The only way to stop such diseases in their tracks is to have equitable access to quality care and prevention measures for all, regardless of where they live. Only then can we hope to achieve global health security.