Smallpox is considered among the most devastating of human diseases. Its spread in populations, initiated for thousands of years following a probable transmission from an animal host, was concomitant with movements of people across regions and continents, trade and wars. Literature permitted to retrace the occurrence of epidemics from ancient times to recent human history, smallpox having affected all levels of past society including famous monarchs. The disease was officially declared eradicated in 1979 following intensive vaccination campaigns.
Paleomicrobiology dedicated to variola virus is restricted to few studies, most unsuccessful, involving ancient material. Only one recent approach allowed the identification of viral DNA fragments from lung tissue of a 300-year-old body excavated from permafrost in Eastern Siberia; phylogenetic analysis revealed that this ancient strain was distinct from those described during the 20th century.
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