Readers in Mexico have been emailing the BBC describing the sense of fear gripping the country as a result of a flu virus outbreak, which has so far claimed more than 80 lives.
Well, that’s from Mexico so the number might be anything from 8 to 800 but still isn’t it a marvel that we live in age when we even deign to notice a mere 80 deaths in a place a couple of thousand miles away?
Being able to fret about just one serious communicable disease is a luxury beyond price.
Scientific and technological history is a passion of mine, so I’ve read a lot about medical history. Well up until WWII and the development of antibiotics and mass vaccinations, our forbearers suffered through plague after plague of such scale that they make even AIDS look trivial by comparison.
Ever hear of Yellow fever? This is what having it is like:
Yellow fever begins suddenly after an incubation period of three to five days in the human body. In mild cases only fever and headache may be present. Within 24 hours about 15% develop a more severe form, in which they enter the “toxic phase” characterized by fever, chills, bleeding into the skin, paradoxically slow heartbeat, headache, back pains, and extreme prostration.Nausea, vomiting, and constipation are common. Jaundice usually appears on the second or third day. After the third day the symptoms recede, only to return with increased severity in the final stage, during which there is a marked tendency to hemorrhage internally; the characteristic “coffee ground” vomitus contains blood. The patient then lapses into delirium and coma, followed by death in about 50% of those who enter the toxic phase. During epidemics a much higher proportion have entered the toxic phase, and the fatality rate has been as high as 85%.
Now imagine this:
Yellow fever cases were probably developing on the fringes of Memphis [pop est 40,000] as early as late July , and by August 13 the first death was reported in the city itself. With the horrors of the 1873 epidemic fresh on their minds, roughly 25,000 residents fled the city within two weeks. The fever raged in Memphis until mid-October, infecting over 17,000 and killing 5,150. Over 90 percent of whites who remained contracted yellow fever, and roughly 70 percent of these died. Long thought to be immune to the disease, blacks contracted the fever in large numbers as well in 1878, although only 7 percent of infected blacks died. While there is still no consensus among experts explaining this racial disparity in mortality rates, it is likely that repeated exposure to yellow fever over many generations in West Africa provided many blacks with a higher resistance to the disease.
Ever heard of this catastrophe? Did you read about it in your history books? Probably not, unless you studied Tennessee’s 19th century history or medical history in detail. Why don’t histories, especially histories written in the decades immediately after the plague, pay any attention to it? Why wasn’t this the event we associate with the 1870s?
Because the yellow fever outbreak, bad as it was, wasn’t that unusual for its day. Yellow fever, malaria, small pox, Cholera and many, many more diseases swept through virtually every community on a fairly regular basis. Every adult everywhere had lived through one or more major epidemics. The tragedy of Memphis got headlines the way a hurricane does today, but five years later people largely forgot about it as each year brought its own crop of new plagues. The devastation of Memphis simply did not stand out enough from all the other plagues to warrant mention in the general history books.
So yeah, Swine flu can be fairly nasty, and yeah it can spread fast thanks to modern transportation, but our forbearers wouldn’t even have noticed it as an annoyance. We should all be grateful we live in an age when such a minor communicable disease causes us concern.