Smallpox is no longer as deadly as it once was. But back in the day, it was one of the most devastating diseases known to mankind, so much so that it was called the “red plague”. Smallpox is believed to have been around since ancient times. A record of a similar disease was found in the medical writings of ancient India in 1500 BC. After being an endemic human disease in India for 2,000 years, smallpox spread to China in the 1st century AD, and then to Japan in the 6th century AD where it caused an epidemic that wiped out a third of the population.
The arrival of smallpox to Europe and the rest of Asia remains unclear. Although it is thought to be the disease behind the Antonine Plague which swept through the Roman Empire from 165 to 180 AD, and several other outbreaks that occurred in 450 and 580 AD. It wasn’t until the 16th century that smallpox was found in most of Europe. In the same era, it became known as one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity across the world. Two centuries later, it was the leading cause of death in Europe, killing as much as 400,000 in a year. During mid-18th century, smallpox was virtually everywhere except Australia and some smaller islands across the globe.
Vaccination against smallpox was developed in 1796 by English physician Edward Jenner. By 1980, the World Health Organization declared it was eradicated after a successful global immunization campaign. The last reported cases of smallpox were in Somalia in 1977 and a laboratory accident in Birmingham in 1978. Even then, it was too late. Smallpox claimed an estimated 500 million lives throughout its course.