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No other disease has such a long, dramatic, and terrible history as smallpox. It is the first (and so far the only) disease to be totally eradicated. But the scourge may come back in biological warfare.
From ancient Egypt, India and China, smallpox spread around the world. It defeated armies, relieved sieges, killed emperors, played havoc with dynasties, helped to establish Buddhism in Japan, and at about the time of Muhammad's birth it stopped Christian Abyssinians from capturing a still pagan Mecca.
When individual epidemics were killing tens of thousands in the early 18th century, the adoption of the `folk-medicine' practice of inoculating with smallpox itself gave some protection to those inoculated - but at the cost of spreading the infection.
In the 1790s Edward Jenner's brilliant experiments in `vaccinating' with cowpox brought hope, not only of saving lives but also of eventually eradicating the disease. The practice spread round the world astonishingly fast. It took over two hundred years to achieve world-wide eradication; and it remains a magnificent and so far a unique scientific and political achievement. But now smallpox is one of the first choices for international bio-terrorism.
This book tells the fascinating and frightening story of this terrifying disease, from the pustules on the mummy of Ramses V to current anxieties - a brilliant mixture of history, science and politics.