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Could smallpox still be lurking in labs and museums?

BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

May 20, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • Coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of Orthopoxvirus variola viruses, the causative agent of smallpox.
Coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of Orthopoxvirus variola… (Alfred Pasieka / Science…)

As international health officials struggled this week to decide whether to destroy the last smallpox stockpiles, Booster Shots blogger Marissa Cevallos delved into the disease's history to remind readers about the devastation it wrought.

There's also an interesting point to be made, according to the Wall Street Journal: In virologists' forgotten collections or dusty museum specimens, the deadly disease may still exist.

That possibility was highlighted when a scab from the 1876 in a Virgina museum display was snatched by personnel, clad in surgical gloves and gowns, who came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back in March.

In all likelihood, the scab was of no danger to museum visitors, but it begs the question: How long can a virus survive outside of the body? Could a supposedly defunct bug rise to wreak havoc on unsuspecting human immune systems?

Turns out it depends on the virus. Some are incredibly fragile -- HIV normally lasts just seconds when exposed to air -- while others, in the right conditions, can survive outside the body for years. Smallpox, unfortunately, is one of the durable ones if kept at room temperature.

That might be why people would use scabs of infected patients as a crude sort of vaccination technique -- exposing a person to the viral matter in the scab could help build immunity to the disease. That's how this particular relic ended up in the museum's collection, with a letter from a son to his father explaining its purpose.

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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