The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Smallpox jitters after 28 years

Calcutta, May 31: Smallpox, the only human infectious disease thought eradicated, returned to haunt the state today following reports of outbreaks in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The Calcutta airport, port and border posts have been told to screen passengers from these countries, especially Chittagong, director of health services Sanchita Baksi said.

The World Health Organisation had declared the disease eradicated in 1979, so vaccines are not available. No specific cure is known for the viral infection that can kill up to a third of patients.

“We received a communiqué from the foreign ministry yesterday about the outbreak of smallpox and measles along the borders of Bangladesh and Myanmar,” a health department official said. “Any passenger from these two countries with fever and rashes will be secluded and tested.”

“We will not seal the borders till final confirmation of the outbreak is received,” chief secretary Amit Kiran Deb said. District magistrates and chief medical officers of health in every district have been alerted.

Smallpox is highly contagious and spreads primarily through prolonged social contact or direct contact with infected body fluids or contaminated objects, such as bedding or clothes. It can spread through the air in closed spaces but isn’t transmitted by insects or animals.

Officials said the School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta, is still equipped for diagnostic tests for the virus.

Early symptoms are high temperature (101-104°C), bodyache and headache. In two to three days, red spots appear in the mouth and tongue and break open into sores. Rashes all over the body follow.

The rashes become fluid-filled bumps that turn into pustules. Finally, scabs form and fall off, often leaving lifelong pitted scars. Occasional side effects include blindness and infertility in males.

Smallpox was last reported in India in 1975, when around 1,400 people were infected. The disease is caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.

The deadlier form, V. major, has a mortality rate of 3 to 35 per cent while V. minor causes a milder form of the disease called alastrim and kills less than 1 per cent of patients.

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