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Should you be wary of smallpox? After killing a half-billion humans last century, wiping out 90% of Native Americans and destroying the Aztec and Inca empires, smallpox has a unique track record of repeatedly depopulating planet Earth century after century, killing kings, pharaohs and commoners in every corner of the globe.

Infection with the highly contagious Variola major virus initially resembles chicken pox -- but quickly becomes much, much worse -- producing complex mutiloculated pustules that cover the face and body, sometimes becoming confluent with massive hemorrhage, involving the lungs and mucus membranes, and killing a third of its victims within a few weeks while leaving the rest blinded or disfigured by scars.

Perhaps no single human has saved more lives than Edward Jenner, whose fascination with pretty milkmaids led him in 1796 to the discovery that an infection with benign cowpox could lend protection against this scourge of humanity. The last US case was in 1949, and the last wild case known was in Somalia in 1977. With no natural reservoir for the virus, the world as been free of smallpox ever since.

But before you celebrate, consider the fact that during the cold war, Russia's biowarfare program manufactured 20 tons of the virus -- enough to kill every person on Earth. Although this deadly virus trove was supposedly destroyed, stores of the virus still remain in at least two locations in the world. Or so it was thought until a batch turned up unexpectedly in a freezer in Atlanta in 2014. Since the exact structure of this DNA virus is well known, new technologies may make it easy for terrorists to recreate the virus from scratch. Because no vaccination program has been in effect in the US since 1972, almost all US citizens along with those in many other countries, are completely vulnerable to another epidemic -- a scenario terrifyingly explored in books such as, Richard Preston's "The Demon in the Freezer." Once you have smallpox, treatment options are limited and few.

Want to get vaccinated? Good luck -- the vaccine is considered dangerous for many people, has not been clinically tested against the real thing for a half century, and is not publicly available in the USA. Should an epidemic occur, your only option is rely on aging government stockpiles.

Is there a bright side? If that spot on your cheek is smallpox, at least be you'll be at the front of the line to get a plot in your local graveyard, because once the epidemic spreads, there won't be enough tombstones in the world for all the people that will soon be following you. Be glad that you won't be around to see it happen.

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