Diagnostic electron microscopy (DEM) was an essential component of viral diagnosis until the development of highly sensitive nucleic acid amplification techniques (NAT). The simple negative staining technique of DEM was applied widely to smallpox diagnosis until the world-wide eradication of the human-specific pathogen in 1980. Since then, the threat of smallpox re-emerging through laboratory escape, molecular manipulation, synthetic biology or bioterrorism has not totally disappeared and would be a major problem in an unvaccinated population. Other animal poxviruses may also emerge as human pathogens. With its rapid results (only a few minutes after arrival of the specimen), no requirement for specific reagents and its “open view”, DEM remains an important component of virus diagnosis, particularly because it can easily and reliably distinguish smallpox virus or any other member of the orthopoxvirus (OPV) genus from parapoxviruses (PPV) and the far more common and less serious herpesviruses (herpes simplex and varicella zoster). Preparation, enrichment, examination, internal standards and suitable organisations are discussed to make clear its continuing value as a diagnostic technique.
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