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Public Health: Smallpox

Eradicating the Disease

The smallpox virus, looking like an oil painting. The protein coat of each virus is coloured yellow; DNA genetic material is red. Magnification: x28,500

From dailymail. Currently seeking permission to use this photo.


Smallpox, caused by the Variola major virus, is responsible for flu-like symptoms that spread easily from one person to another.  Eradicated in 1977, only two labs worldwide continue to hold small amounts of the virus; however, it is still considered a bioterrorist threat because routine immunizations against the potentially deadly virus stopped in 1972 (NIH, 2013). 

Pathogenomic research has identified many features of the Variola major virus genome and has compared them to other poxvirus genomes to identify which elements are responsible for the virus’s virulence.  Massung et al have determined that “the factors most crucial to poxvirus virulence are mainly encoded in a series of terminal region genes that could interfere with host defenses against invading organisms, largely compromising the inflammatory response …” (1994).  Esposito et al confirm that terminal region genes “encode for more divergent proteins, including those modulating host range and virulence” (2006).  Additionally, nine DNA insertions were identified that had no paralogs in related viruses, and many proteins were truncated or elongated in variola major (Massung, 1994).  These insertions and truncations/elongations could contribute to the virus’s virulence and its specificity towards a human host.  The more we uncover about the mechanism by which the variola major virus infects humans through pathogenomic research, the more we can learn about the human immune system and how it responds to infection (Dunlop, 2003).  This in turn could lead to individually targeted treatments for infections.

anthrax spores

Variola virus, the agent of human smallpox. The virus emerged in human populations thousands of years ago, and has produced devastating epidemics throughout recorded history.

From textbookofbacteriology. Currently seeking permission to use these photos.


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