There’s no known treatment for smallpox. Getting the vaccine within 3 to 4 days of contact with the virus may make the disease less severe or maybe help prevent it.
Beyond that, medical care aims to ease symptoms like fever and body aches, and control any other illnesses that a person can get when their immune system is weak. Antibiotics can help if someone gets a bacterial infection while they have smallpox.
Scientists are still looking for antiviral medicines that could treat the disease. The drug cidofovir has worked well in early studies.
Prevention: The Smallpox Vaccine
Scientists use the cousin virus to variola -- the vaccinia virus – to make the smallpox vaccine, because it poses fewer health risks. The vaccine prompts the body's immune system to make the tools, called antibodies, it needs to protect against the variola virus and help prevent smallpox disease.
No one knows for sure how long the smallpox vaccine protects people from the disease. Some experts believe it lasts for up to 5 years and wears off over time. Since it may not give lifelong protection, anyone vaccinated years ago as a child could be at risk of future infection by the variola virus. The only people known to be immune for life are those who have had smallpox and survived.
The World Health Organization and its member countries keep an emergency stockpile of the smallpox vaccine. It’s rarely used today, except for those few people who are around the variola virus, such as laboratory researchers working with variola and viruses like it.
Risks of the Vaccine
Some of its side effects can be dangerous, especially for people with weak immune systems. They can range from skin reactions to a serious nervous system condition called encephalitis, which can lead to convulsions, coma, and death. But these side effects are very rare. Based on historical data, for every 1 million people vaccinated for smallpox, one to two people died from a bad reaction.
Some people would have a higher risk of a reaction to the vaccine, like:
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- People with skin disorders such as eczema
- People with a weak immune system due to a medical condition like leukemia or HIV
- People on medical treatments, such as for cancer, that make the immune system weak