History, History Column

Infectious Diseases in History

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur

Today it is the unexpected arrival of the MERS virus (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) that sickens America. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that MERS, an infectious disease, now occurs trans-globally most likely transmitted by handshake. Infectious diseases are caused by living organisms including viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and parasitic worms.

Disease occurs when cells in the human body are damaged as a result of infection. In 1617 Jamestown’s Indian villages suffered a fatal smallpox epidemic. In 1795 Alexandria’s Superintendent of Quarantine inspected incoming ships to prevent the spread of yellow fever. In 1862 President Lincoln’s son Willie died of typhoid fever and during the Civil War more soldiers died of diarrhea than bullet wounds. Coincident with the Civil War, beginning in 1861, Louis Pasteur developed his germ theory of disease.

Infectious diseases spread by direct contact; via vectors like the mosquito; airborne droplets, or contaminated food, water and blood. In 1909 the South succumbed to hookworm. The Spanish flu slowed the First World War, and in 1918 in Alexandria “expectorating on sidewalks” became punishable by law. The law did not prevent a 1923 outbreak of Grippe, a “bad weather [influenza] affliction” which infected “500-700 Alexandria persons.”

Revolutionary War General George Washington understood the maladies associated with infectious diseases. He survived smallpox as a youth. Washington favored smallpox inoculation, so much so he ordered the Continental army immunized.

In 1777, 100,000 North Americans died from smallpox. “[W]e should have more dread from [smallpox] than from the Sword of the enemy,” General Washington concluded. Smallpox symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, backache and deep-seated rash.

“[T]he smallpox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way,” General Washington said. “I have therefore determined, not only to inoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order [Doctor] Shippen to inoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia.”

Those who opposed General Washington’s smallpox initiative shared the unfounded belief the British had militarily infected the American army. Martha Washington, a camp follower fearful of the inoculating process, received her smallpox inoculation in Philadelphia in 1776. Son Jacky Custis was inoculated in 1771. To inoculate is to introduce an antigenic substance intended to boost immunity.

“[General] Washington’s unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank among his most important decisions of the war,” historian Elizabeth A. Fenn wrote. Thanks to the courage of men like Washington smallpox was wholly eradicated in 1979.

Whether it is today’s enclosed air traveler, George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence, or an 1880s milk-drinking American citizen someone somewhere is newly infected with the tuberculosis bacterium (TB) every second. Tuberculosis is an infectious bacterial disease that spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and the airborne contaminant is inhaled by another located nearby. It is also spread by drinking unpasteurized, contaminated milk.

In 1882 German bacteriologist Robert Koch proved that tuberculosis was caused by contagious bacteria, not by heredity as others assumed. “If [Louis] Pasteur’s culture experiments have led to the discovery of a method by which the poison of splenic fever is rendered harmless, and the disease prevented by the timely inoculation of the modified virus, may we not hope that the time is not distant when the ravages of [tubercular] consumption will be prevented by the inoculation of a modified bacillus?” The Washington Post wrote in 1883.

            “.…That tuberculosis is contagious and that it is transmissible from human beings to animals or vice versa are among the statements on which the members of the [first International Tuberculosis] Congress were substantially agreed,” The Washington Post continued in 1888. “The practical identity of tuberculosis in the case of men, women and cattle is now acknowledged.” The cattle type accounted for approximately 10% of all cases of human pulmonary tuberculosis and 100% of all human cases involving organ damage.

By 1900 untreated tuberculosis was the country’s leading cause of human mortality, with a death rate of 194/100,000. More than a century later, in 2008, 1.8 million of the world’s people died from tuberculosis. Only 2% of those with multi-drug resistant TB receive proper medication.

The National Academy of Sciences Marian Koshland Science Museum acknowledges the broader problem of drug resistance. Antibiotic resistance is one of globe’s most pressing public health problems. Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic—penicillin—in 1927. Penicillin-resistant staph bacteria progressed 15 years later. E. coli now resists ampicillin, sulfonamide and tetracycline. The Koshland Science Museum is located in the District of Columbia, http://www.koshland-science-museum.org.

In April 2014 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a sobering weather analysis. Rising average temperatures are expected to change the transmission patterns of several infectious diseases including diarrheal disease. Increased precipitation will also increase the frequency of vector borne diseases, especially those associated with mosquitoes, ticks and snails.

            Chikungunya is an infectious, viral disease first identified in Tanzania in 1952. It is transmitted by mosquito bite and symptoms include fever and joint pain. In December 2013 the virus was discovered in the Caribbean and this year, in May, the State of Florida reported the country’s first cases. By mid-June Chikungunya had spread to six states including Virginia. The infections correlate with vacationers’ Caribbean travel.

As air travel continues, as weather patterns change; as food is now traded, as water and sanitation practices fail infectious diseases will spread. Alexandria understood as early as 1810 excreta contaminated its groundwater. Currently the city is under order to improve its combined sewer overflows; to rid Hunting Creek and the Potomac River of its raw sewage including human waste.

Some health solutions, like hand washing with soap, are simple. Others more complicated. The polio virus, which slowed with the 1953 Salk vaccine, remains prevalent in Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern Nigeria. The 2018 Polio Endgame Plan includes the introduction of female vaccination teams, a strategy local Taliban oppose. Since July 2012, 43 lady health workers have been killed by Pakistani Taliban.

Infectious diseases account for a quarter of the deaths worldwide. In the United States MERS and Chikungunya are emerging; Pertussis (whooping cough) and Measles are increasing. The latter are infectious diseases easily prevented by vaccination.

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. President Jimmy Carter championed the country’s first comprehensive childhood vaccination program in 1977. Thomas Jefferson likewise facilitated vaccine inoculation.

“Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed and by you[r vaccine] has been extirpated,” President Jefferson wrote English physician Edward Jenner in 1806.


Written by: ©  Sarah Becker
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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