Infectious Diseases

In 2011 Smallpox Scare CDC Whisked 1800s Skin Scab off to Lab

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Back in May 2011, a Richmond, Va. museum devoted to Virginia state history faced an unintended and interesting problem. The museum had created a "Bizarre bits" display, which featured unique items.

One item in the exhibit caught the attention of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) . When the agency learned of the contents, representatives immediately traveled to Richmond to whisk the item back to its labs in Atlanta, Ga.

What caused the commotion?

The upheaval was caused by a small scab which came from an infant infected with smallpox in the 19th century. The Wall Street Journal had reported the scab was part of the museum's display of either odd or unique items. It was displayed in an exhibit that included a fungus carving of Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveller, a confiscated cigar that once belonged to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a wreath made of human hair.

The scab was accompanied with the 1876 letter the skin fragment was pinned to.

"Dear Pa...the piece I inclose is perfectly fresh and was taken from an infant's arm yesterday..." read the letter. "Dr. Harris says the inclosed scab will vaccinate 12 persons, but if you want more, you must send for it. I will pin this to the letter so that you cannot lose it as you did before."

Centers for Disease Control arrives to take the scab

According to WSJ, who talked to Dr. Paul Levengood, a historian who is also president and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society, said " It [the scab] attracted a good deal of notice when people came to the exhibit."

However, after a government scientist got word of the unique historical item and contacted the CDC, representatives from the agency immediately went to the museum and snatched the scab to circumvent a potential public health issue, or smallpox outbreak. Once the scab was sealed in bio-bags, the CDC representatives drove back to Atlanta to test the scab in its labs to see if the fragment contained the virus, Variola, or the deadly smallpox disease itself.

Limited authorization of live Variola allowed

Atlanta's facility, along with Russian Siberian lab, are the only two authorized places in the world to have live Variola stored in high-secure labs.

In related news, in February 2011, health officials from around the world are attending the World Health Organization's annual meeting this week in Geneva, Switzerland. One item on the agenda was the live Variola residing in the U.S. and Russia. WHO felt it was time to destroy the remaining viruses once and for all, while the U.S. and Russia were less eager to do so. Their reasoning included fear of bioterrorism. Another concern is not all samples may have been surrendered when WHO initially authorized the storage locations.

Smallpox was declared to be eradicated in 1980, the last known natural borne infection was in 1977, with a lab accident infection in 1978.

Was the museum scab infected?

Chance of infection from the museum display is low as the piece was well insulated. Additionally, the CDC indicated most old skin pieces examined are typically found to have deteriorated.

However, one can't be too cautious.

In the end, CDC microbiologists confirmed the scab contained Variola, but not smallpox.

After this incident, many pondered whether or not the disease, which can kill up to 30 percent infected, is perhaps not completely eradicated if fragments and pieces are buried, stored or lurking in various places.   

After all, you never know when or where a sample might show up.

More about this author: Leigh Goessl

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