Three people have now been infected with a cousin of the infamous smallpox virus in the country of Georgia, which marks the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe. American scientists from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) detected this new virus in three people, including two herdsmen who somehow had been infected by their livestock. The virus currently has no name and belongs to a family of viruses called orthopoxvirus that includes cowpox and smallpox.
Neil Vora, who led the CDC team, said in an NPR report that it is not known if this new virus could be transmitted from human to human, but it could be transmitted from animals to humans. “But how many people are getting sick? Are animals getting sick? We don’t know. We don’t know if it has caused any deaths,” Vora said.
The two herdsmen, who were not vaccinated against smallpox, got sick last summer after making contact with sick cattle. The CDC team investigated and conducted tests, confirming that the men were infected with an unknown type of orthopoxvirus. Like smallpox, this new virus causes painful blisters on the arms and hands, swollen lymph nodes, high fever and physical weakness. The CDC team also interviewed 55 people who were in contact with the sick cattle or herdsmen. They found five of the nine interviewees had orthopoxvirus antibodies in their bloodstream and found a third person who contracted the disease in 2010, but was thought to have anthrax, according to the CDC report.
People who are vaccinated with one type of orthopoxvirus will also be protected against other viruses in the family, according to Vora. The viruses include cowpox, monkeypox, smallpox and vaccinia. Since smallpox vaccinations stopped in Georgia in 1980, this cousin of the smallpox virus began to proliferate among rodents, which could infect livestock and people. Although the herdsmen have recovered, the relatives of the smallpox virus could be deadly to those with weak immune systems.
Smallpox is probably one of the deadliest diseases in human history, killing more humans than all other diseases combined, according to MedlinePlus. It has been eradicated from the wild, and small live samples are stored in a few laboratories in the U.S. and Russia. The last case of smallpox was reported in 1977. Even so, Vora wonders if there may be more similar viruses circulating in the wild that are closely related to any of the pox viruses.
Some disease experts feared that smallpox viruses could be “revived” after being dormant in corpses who died from the disease. Samples of smallpox DNA have been discovered in corpses such as in Egyptian mummies that showed evidence of a smallpox infection. No one really knows how long it could survive in a corpse, especially those that still retain some soft tissues. So far, no one has contracted smallpox from a dead body.
It is a wonder how the human species and civilization survived for thousands of years with smallpox and other diseases running rampant like horse-riding bandits in the steppes. With the discovery of the new pox virus in Georgia, that can infect people, the CDC and other public health agencies should keep an eye on this potential deadly smallpox cousin.
By Nick Ng
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