Smallpox Vaccine


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What is smallpox?

Smallpox is an illness caused by the variola virus. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, vomiting, and a rash that starts out as flat red spots and then turns into blisters. Smallpox can be spread from person to person, usually once a fever and rash have developed.

 

What is the smallpox vaccine?

The smallpox vaccine protects against infection by helping a person’s body develop immunity to the smallpox virus. It is made from a live virus that’s very similar to the smallpox virus. The vaccine doesn’t cause smallpox. However, it can cause severe reactions in the following:

  • People who have a history of eczema or another chronic skin condition
  • People who have a condition that results in a weakened immune system or are getting treatment that weakens the immune system. This includes people who have cancer, HIV, or AIDS; people who have recently had an organ transplant; and people taking medicines such as steroids.
  • People who are allergic to any ingredient in the smallpox vaccine
  • Women who are pregnant or nursing
  • Children younger than 12 months of age
  • People who have a heart condition such as chest pain; a history of heart attack or stroke; congestive heart failure; or inflammation of the heart muscle 
  • People who have 3 or more of the following risk factors:
    • High blood cholesterol
    • High blood pressure
    • Diabetes or high blood sugar
    • A first-degree relative (mother, father, brother, or sister) who had a heart condition before he or she was 50 years of age
    • Currently smoke cigarettes
  • People who share a household with someone who suffers from a skin condition or an immune system problem

 

Is the smallpox vaccine available to the public?

No, the smallpox vaccine is not available to the public. Routine smallpox vaccination in the United States ended in 1972. Once smallpox had been wiped out worldwide, the public didn’t need to be protected from getting the disease anymore. Now the smallpox virus only exists in samples in research laboratories. 

The smallpox vaccine is still used to protect certain people (for example, people who work with the smallpox virus in research laboratories). The United States also has a supply of smallpox vaccine available in case of an outbreak of smallpox, which is unlikely. 

 

If I was vaccinated before 1972, am I still protected from smallpox?

Probably not. Studies show that the vaccine is most effective for 3 to 5 years after vaccination.

A note about vaccines

Sometimes the amount of a certain vaccine cannot keep up with the number of people who need it. More info...

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Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 08/16
Created: 01/03

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