Surprise virus in child mummy unravels thousands of years of disease history

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Enlarge (credit: Duggan et al. | Current Biology ) From the pockmarked mummified pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the epic triumph of complete global eradication, smallpox had a remarkable history. But that lengthy history may be in for a massive revision, thanks to a little mummy found in the crypt of a Lithuanian church. The mummy, thought to be of a child between the ages of two and four who died sometime between 1643 and 1665, teemed with the genetic remains of the bygone virus. That smallpox DNA was the oldest ever found—yet it was quite young, evolutionarily speaking. In fact, genetic analysis of the preserved smallpox blueprints, published Thursday in Current Biology , suggests that smallpox is just hundreds of years old, not millennia as many had thought. The finding stands to rewrite the virus’ storied past. Reports of blistering, puss-packed rashes have speckled historical records for thousands of years. The dimpled pharaohs and spotted plagues in China during the 4th century were considered proof that the smallpox virus—aka Variola —plagued humankind for a long, long time. Smallpox caused massive outbreaks throughout Europe in the 17 th century and devastated populations in the New World. But, in 1796, it became the first disease for which there was a vaccine. And in 1979, smallpox was declared the first—and still only—infectious disease of humans to be globally eradicated. (Rinderpest, an infectious disease of cattle and some other animals, has also been eradicated.) Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Surprise virus in child mummy unravels thousands of years of disease history

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