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Background

Smallpox is a disease caused by the Variola major virus. Some experts say that over the centuries it has killed more people than all other infectious diseases combined. Worldwide immunization stopped the spread of smallpox three decades ago. The last case was reported in 1977. Two research labs still house small amounts of the virus. Experts fear bioterrorists could use the virus to spread disease.

The US stopped routine smallpox vaccinations in 1972. Military and other high-risk groups continue to get the vaccine. The US has increased its supply of the vaccine in recent years. The vaccine makes some people sick, so doctors save it for those at highest risk of disease. (Source: NIH)

Generally, direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact is required to spread smallpox from one person to another. Smallpox also can be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects such as bedding or clothing. Rarely, smallpox has been spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains. Humans are the only natural hosts of variola. Smallpox is not known to be transmitted by insects or animals.

A person with smallpox is sometimes contagious with onset of fever (prodrome phase), but the person becomes most contagious with the onset of rash. At this stage the infected person is usually very sick and not able to move around in the community. The infected person is contagious until the last smallpox scab falls off. (Source: CDC)

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