(NaturalNews) At one point in world history, smallpox (Variola major) was a killer disease on a massive scale, killing 300 million in the 20th century alone. However, some 30 years ago, smallpox had been declared eradicated from the globe.
And yet, there are still two places where strains of the disease are kept alive; the question is, why? Finally, more people have begun asking that very question; 2014 could become the year that mankind destroys the last trace of this global killer once and for all.
As reported by the BBC:
In 1975, the last naturally occurring case of Variola major turned up in a two-year old girl in Bangladesh. Finally, after three decades of eradication efforts, on 8 May 1980, the World Health Organization pronounced success, writing: "The world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake."
Scientists have said that this accomplishment was possible, because unlike most other deadly viruses, such as yellow fever, Ebola, HIV, malaria or influenza, there is no animal reservoir for smallpox. Devoid of human incubators, the virus simply cannot exist in a natural state.
In addition, the virus does not remain alive for long on its own. In years past, researchers and news media speculated that perhaps smallpox in victims frozen in graves might just be able to remain in some sort of suspended state, ready to infect again if the victims' bodies were exhumed and thawed.
In fact, scientists have tried this: They have dug up corpses in frozen graves in Alaska and Siberia of people who perished from smallpox; none of those bodies contained viable viruses, however.
"No one feels there's a serious chance that global warming will melt the permafrost and unleash an epidemic," Michael Lane, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) smallpox eradication program from 1970 until 1981, told the BBC. His office disappeared after naturally occurring cases of the virus did.
Labs continued to maintain samples of smallpox
After the virus was eradicated from the naturally occurring global environment, a handful of laboratories around the world continued to store live samples of the disease, ostensibly for research purposes - developing vaccines and other treatments.
But a couple of years before WHO declared it vanquished, the dangers of keeping stored samples became evident. As reported by the BBC:
In 1978... Janet Parker, a photographer working at the University of Birmingham Medical School, began complaining about headache and muscle pains. Days later, red spots appeared on her body, which medical workers wrote off as a harmless rash. Two weeks after her symptoms began, however, doctors correctly diagnosed smallpox. She was quarantined and treated for her illness, but died around two weeks later. Her mother also fell ill but survived, while her father suffered a fatal heart attack during a visit to see his daughter in the hospital.
Somehow, Parker was obviously exposed to the virus, perhaps through air ducts to her office from a lab on a floor below her, where samples were kept. Her death led to a reconsideration of keeping live samples, even for research.
"Although we all had in the back of our minds that we needed to extirpate the virus - not just the disease - that incident made us realise that the repository of smallpox in test tubes and screw-top vials in various labs was a major problem," said Lane.
Blame politics, terrorism, and repeat
So why have samples been kept, so many years later?
"Over the years, the United States, Russia, and the World Health Organization (WHO) have attempted to broker multiple agreements on destroying the last remaining strains," said David Dragoo, MD, a medical and health expert at MoneyCrashers.com, in an email to Natural News.
But due to disagreements between governments, so far there has been no agreement on the timetable, he said, adding that "the latest round of talks had set a deadline for destruction in May 2014" - a timetable he says likely won't be met.
Dragoo further explains:
"Given the advances in genetic engineering from synthetic biological material over the last decade, the United States in particular, has argued the need to keep the stockpiles to conduct further research. The fear is that terrorists can take the widely available online genome of the virus and recreate it using these synthetic technologies. Smallpox carries a 30% case-fatality rate, no effective treatment is available, and it spreads by person-to-person contact. This is of special concern because the world's population is now either unvaccinated or last vaccinated more than 30 years ago."
Given those concerns, it isn't at all certain that the final remaining live smallpox strains will be destroyed anytime soon.