New genetic research from an international team including scientists from McMaster University, University of Helsinki, Vilnius University, and the University of Sydney, suggests that smallpox, a pathogen that caused millions of deaths worldwide, may not be an ancient disease but a much more modern killer that went on to become the first human disease eradicated by vaccination. The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, raise new questions about the role smallpox may have played in human history and fuel a longstanding debate over when the virus that causes smallpox, variola, first emerged and later evolved in response to inoculation and vaccination. The article is titled “17th Century Variola Virus Reveals the Recent History of Smallpox.” "Scientists don't yet fully comprehend where smallpox came from and when it jumped into humans," says evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, senior author of the study, Director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and a researcher with Michael G. DeGroote Institute of Infectious Disease Research. "This research raises some interesting possibilities about our perception and age of the disease." Smallpox, one of the most devastating viral diseases ever to strike humankind, had long been thought to have appeared in human populations thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, India, and China, with some historical accounts suggesting that the pharaoh Ramses V -who died in 1145 BC--suffered from smallpox.
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