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When Going Viral Is Bad: Museum Artifacts May Harbor Historic Diseases

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Photo by mlanda7419 via LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr
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While the issue of what to do with the known remaining caches of live smallpox was debated by the international health community this week, the Wall Street Journal took a look at a scab from 1876 after glove-wearing Feds swooped in to a Virginia museum to retrieve it, and the LA Times wondered aloud, "Could smallpox still be lurking in labs and museums?"

In all likelihood, the scab was of no danger to museum visitors, but it begs the question: How long can a virus survive outside of the body? Could a supposedly defunct bug rise to wreak havoc on unsuspecting human immune systems? Turns out it depends on the virus. Some are incredibly fragile -- HIV normally lasts just seconds when exposed to air -- while others, in the right conditions, can survive outside the body for years. Smallpox, unfortunately, is one of the durable ones if kept at room temperature.

Scabs of the infected were historically used as a crude vaccination attempt in an effort to build immunity by means of exposure. The crust in question from Virginia was one such scab -- it was mailed with instructions.