Despite the life-threatening hazards they could again pose to the human race, Russia and the United States seem to remain firm in keeping stockpiles of one of the world's deadliest most contagious disease-the smallpox.

After all, the smallpox has not wreaked havoc since 1980. It is the only human pathogen that has been eradicated on the face of the Earth by the World Health Organization (WHO), with only a few samples of live variola virus carefully locked away in laboratories situated in Russia and the U.S.

In the 20th century, smallpox, which is caused by two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor, took the lives of approximately 500 million people worldwide. It was only through rigorous vaccination campaigns during the 19th and 20th centuries that put an end to the seemingly uncontrollable outbreak.

At present, WHO is mulling over whether or not these samples should still be kept. The virus could re-appear in the population, it said, either by accident-such as what happened in 1978 in Birmingham, England, when one person was killed in laboratory accident and caused a limited outbreak-or "deliberate release" as part of any biological warfare.

A group of scientists from the U.S. and Brazil, however, requested to reconsider the move, stating in a recent opinion piece [pdf] published in the website PLOS Pathogens that there is more to be done in the research about the virus.

The staunch request followed suit after Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report about the two farmers covered with blisters on their arms and hands in the country Georgia last year. The two farmers acquired the virus, which was dubbed a second cousin to smallpox, from a dairy cattle.

"While certain aspects of the original research goals using live virus have been met, other key item, like the wider approval of accurate diagnostics that can distinguish smallpox from other Orthopoxvirus diseases or the full licensure of new antiviral drug and vaccines that are effective against variola virus, have not yet been completed," they wrote.

According to WHO, smallpox is characterized by pus-filled blisters, or pocks. A total of 30 percent of the smallpox victims died. Those who survived, meanwhile, sustained deep scars from the blisters, mostly on the face. Some of the victims became blind, too, and nearly third of in 18th century Europe's cases of blindness was attributed to smallpox.

Further discussions about the issue will be held at the forthcoming World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting. WHA is the governing body of the WHO.

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