The earliest procedure used to prevent smallpox was inoculation (also known as variolation). Inoculation was allegedly first practiced in India as early as 1000 BC, and involved either nasal insufflation of powdered smallpox scabs, or scratching material from a smallpox lesion into the skin. However, this idea has been challenged as few of the ancient Sanskrit medical texts of India described the process of inoculation.
Accounts of inoculation against smallpox in China can be found as early as the late 10th century, and the procedure was widely practiced by the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty. If successful, inoculation produced lasting immunity to smallpox. However, because the person was infected with variola virus, a severe infection could result, and the person could transmit smallpox to others. Variolation had a 0.5–2% mortality rate; considerably less than the 20–30% mortality rate of the disease itself.
There are side effects and risks associated with the smallpox vaccine. In the past, about 1,000 people for every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time experienced serious, but non-life-threatening, reactions including toxic or allergic reaction at the site of the vaccination (erythema multiforme), spread of the vaccinia virus to other parts of the body, and to other individuals. Potentially life-threatening reactions occurred in 14 to 500 people out of every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time.
Based on past experience, it is estimated that 1 or 2 people in 1 million (0.000198%) who receive the vaccine may die as a result, most often the result of postvaccinial encephalitis or severe necrosis in the area of vaccination (called progressive vaccinia). It is now primarily recommended for laboratory workers at risk for occupational exposure.
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