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How was smallpox spread?

The last case of naturally occurring smallpox was diagnosed in 1977. Before that, however, smallpox spread predominantly through direct contact with an infected person's bodily fluids or skin, but also could be spread through the air in close and confined environments.

When Europeans came to the Americas, they carried with them a host of diseases for which the native populations had no defenses. Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez's capture of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, on Aug. 13, 1521, was largely due to the smallpox inadvertently introduced by the conquistadors to the continent.

Before European conquerors, explorers, conquerors and colonists began flooding into the New World in the early 1500s, an estimated 100 million native people lived in the Americas.

During centuries that followed, those native populations were reduced to somewhere between 5 million and 10 million by the epidemic diseases brought in by the Europeans. Although the Incas and Aztecs had built cities, they had not dwelled in them long enough to breed the kind of diseases that the Europeans had and they had not domesticated as many animals. The native peoples were defenseless against the diseases brought to the Americas by the Europeans. A vaccine for smallpox was created in 1796, but smallpox epidemics continued to spread. As recently as 1967, the virus killed two million people and scared millions across the world. The World Health Organization spearheaded an effort in 1967 to use mass vaccinations to eradicate the virus.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.