What To Know About Smallpox In Case Dr. House Isn’t There To Save You

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© Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/Corbis

Last night on House, Hugh Laurie and company fussed over a potential case of smallpox. Next time you’re diving around sunken slave ships, as the patients in question were, and there’s no cantankerous doctor around to alleviate your suffering, here’s everything you need to know about the disease.

For those of you who were schoolchildren circa 1951, the Ministry of Health may have already educated you on the dangers of the disease. Read: it will sneak up from behind and mark you forever.


But those born after the complete eradication of smallpox in 1979, the disease is a known villain in name only. In fact, your only source of information might be the made-for-TV classic, Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon, which, while entertaining, moved the Center for Disease Control to counter some of its more outlandish claims.

So what is smallpox? At it’s core, it’s an acute virus, sometimes fatal, that probably originated in Africa and eventually made it’s way across the globe. Famous spreaders include Europeans to the Native Americans on their journey to the New World.

Once hit with smallpox, it isn’t pretty. Symptoms start a week or two after contraction, and usually begin with normal flu pains like fever, chills and body aches. If untreated, the disease takes the form of a rash that crusts, forms into pustules and scabs. Around 30% of patients don’t survive, lucky ones could be scarred or blinded for life.

Since the ’50s, the smallpox agenda has changed. For awhile after eradication, the disease was just one remembered as one of the Top 10 Terrible Epidemics. But as tbecame a bigger threat, smallpox wormed its way into the minds of policy makers again. When president, Clinton suggested the U.S. get rid of their frozen samples of the disease (kept as a precaution should it rear its ugly head again). The only other known holders of smallpox, the Russians, tentatively agreed to destroy their stocks as well. Not so surprisingly, that plan didn’t play out – instead, politicians and scientists have pushed for using that supply for mandatory vaccinations in case of an attack. Doctors argue the vaccine, like all, is risky, but the warfare threat is a scary one, too. Smallpox is pretty contagious and not recognized by a lot of doctors so damage could be done quickly.

It’s a scary world out there, folks. Should biological terrorists descend on us tomorrow, let’s hope the doctor in charge at the E.R. is Carter.