Small Pox: Rumors, Superstitions and A Massive Scare

in Medcetera by

When I read this article, a sudden chill ran down my spine:

The health secretary A K Sarkar told IANS he had heard the news that smallpox had resurfaced and the health department was in the process of authenticating reports. But he said he was not in a position to either confirm or deny the report.

Apparently, 3 people had died of small pox in the Gumla district of Jharkhand.

How this happened after almost 3 decades of this disease being wiped out from the face of the earth would be a difficult question to answer, but a more worrying question would be how to stop it! In a nation like India where quarantines and public health maneuvers are difficult to execute, it would be an absolute healthcare nightmare. The toll would be astronomical. The combined toll of Fukushima+Tsunami would be at risk of getting overshadowed.

In the USA smallpox vaccinations ceased in 1972. Though the WHO declared smallpox eradicated in 1979 and recommended the withdrawal of routine vaccination, globally, vaccination was stopped in all forms by 1986, except in high risk groups, that is people working with the virus, involved in research or bioterrorism counter measures and vaccine research.

The thought of Small pox as a bioterrorism weapon is a lethal one indeed. It is especially worrisome because with the cessation of vaccination, individual and herd immunity to the disease is almost nil. When a small pox virus strain is released into the community the number of people getting affected would be progressing on a geometric progression!

However, it appears that it was just a scare, fueled by superstitions which still saturate rural India. This website says:

He agreed that there were three deaths within a week, but emphatically added that not one was due to smallpox.

According to Prasad, a 15-year-old boy, who had eruptions on his body and face, was suffering from convulsions leading to chicken pox. As his parents refused to give him any medicine on the superstition that it would anger the ‘goddess’, he ultimately died.
The other two deaths were not even related to chicken pox but due to totally different reasons, he said.
The village head had spread the fear amongst the villagers that the ‘goddess’ was in great anger and that resulted in smallpox resurfacing.

It is of course, a plausible explanation that in a socio-cultural backdrop which favors the dissemination of superstitions, it is definitely possible that the whole thing is a hoax, but the vague terms used by the authorities to clarify the situation is also not very reassuring. It remains to be seen what the details of the case are, as some more time will be necessary for the popular media to pick it up and hype it. But until then, I will hope, and pray that it was indeed a vile combination of chicken pox, superstition and rumor mongering which set off this landslide.

Ali Maaow Maalin of Somalia, for now your status is safe: you shall still stay down in the history books as the last registered case of the killer Small Pox! (And may things stay that way!)

ali maaow maalin

Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!

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