Smallpox is a highly contagious disease casued by the variola virus. Its characteristic symptom is a rash with pustules. No cure has ever been found, and its mortality rate is about 30 per cent. Known since ancient times, smallpox is thought to have killed about 300 million people in the 20th century alone.
Smallpox was introduced to Australia by the first European settlers, and was repeatedly introduced as more ships arrived. It was carried overland as Europeans spread, causing smallpox epidemics of 1879 and 1828-32. The effects on First Peoples, who had no immunity to the virus, were catastrophic. Messengers from First Peoples clans travelled to warn their neighbours of this dreadful disease, unknowingly spreading smallpox themselves. The tragic loss of life was particularly high along river systems. Elderly people told European observers that in some cases the death toll was so high that their dead could not be buried.
Vaccination against smallpox was developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner - the first vaccine ever used. By the early 19th century smallpox vaccination was being undertaken in some Australian populations. Victoria introduced a Compulsory Vaccination Act in 1854, with free vaccination available to children born from 1850 onwards. Smallpox still broke out in in limited clusters, including Melbourne in 1857 (16 cases), Victoria in 1868-69 (43 cases) and Melbourne again in 1881-85 (56 cases), but Victoria's approach to vaccination saw the threat of smallpox largely mitigated.
The last confirmed smallpox case in Australia was identified during World War I. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared smallpox the first communicable disease ever to be eradicated from the world, achieved by a widespread vaccination program.
Text, First Peoples exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2013.
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