Infectious Diseases Start to Spread

16 05 2011

If we could see millennia into the past, before people started forming societies, we would probably see them living isolated from one another—nomadic in nature.  This lifestyle was a natural barrier to the spread of infectious disease.  But, when they started clustering together, planting crops and staying in one place, infectious diseases surfaced and became lethal foes of humanity.

Cities grew, people started traveling for business, soldiers traveled for war, and they were all prime candidates to be carriers of disease.  Just as in the recent past, when the Native American population was decimated by the diseases brought in by the Europeans, so too have populations in the past two thousand years been seriously affected by a disease’s introduction into their society.  Bayer Pharmaceutical’s A Brief History of Infectious Disease illustrates this phenomenon:

430 BC, the plague of Athens resulted from 200,000 inhabitants and villagers fleeing into Athens when threatened by the Spartans.  An unidentified infectious agent, from Ethiopia via Egypt, killed one-third of this population and ended the Golden Age of Athens.

166 AD, the Antonine plague was brought to Rome from Syria by returning Roman troops.  The plague had been introduced to Syria from India by the marauding Huns.  The plague (probably smallpox, bubonic plague, and measles) devastated the Roman Empire, killing 4–7 million people throughout Europe.  The resulting social and political upheaval led to the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Circa 160 AD, bubonic plague (‘Barbarian boils’) carried by invaders from the north, led to the collapse of the Han Empire in China.

1346 to 1350, the bubonic plague pandemic started in China and moved along the trade routes through South Russia to the Crimea, which was besieged at the time.  This bubonic plague killed more than one-third of the population of Europe.

1492, influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis and gonorrhea began when Columbus went to the Caribbean.  The local inhabitants did not have immunity to these endemic European infections, and as a consequence, many of the people on the island of Hispaniola (where Columbus first set foot in the New World) died.  Replacement of the population by African slaves introduced African infectious diseases such as malaria and yellow fever into the Caribbean and Americas, which, in turn, killed many European settlers.

1542, bubonic plague started in Egypt, killed 40 percent of the population of Constantinople, and spread all over Europe.

Early trading period, blackwater fever (malaria), yellow fever, bloody flux (dysentery), and worm infestations made trading with the continent of Africa difficult.  The impact on travelers and soldiers was so severe that Africa was called ‘the white man’s grave.’

16th century, similarly devastating epidemics with European and then African infections – introduced by the Spanish into Central and South America.  After the Spanish invasion, the population of Mexico decreased by 33 percent in 10 years and by 95 percent in 75 years.

As trade journeys lengthened, chronic infections such as tuberculosis and venereal diseases were introduced by European sailors to the Pacific islands, which lost 95 percent of their population as a result.

Present time, even during the past few decades, there has been a resurgence of epidemics such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the United States and AIDS, genital herpes, and chlamydia worldwide.

This is one in a series of excerpts from PKIDs’ Infectious Disease Workshop.  We hope you find the materials useful – the instructor’s text and activities are all free downloads. 

Photo credit: AJC1





Medicine: Modern v. Ancient

18 11 2010

As the number of Americans with no health insurance soars and more people use the emergency room as a primary care clinic, it is no wonder many Americans have the jitters about healthcare.

With all the news coverage and grim forecasts, it’s easy to forget that many aspects of modern medicine are dramatically superior to days of yore.

Take Arcagathus for example: the first doctor in Rome, he was widely admired until word got around that his use of knives and cautery was more likely to bury the patient than heal him.  Thereafter, he was known as the “Executioner.”

Nowadays, we can be grateful that physicians have to go to school and learn all sorts of ways not to harm a patient before they’re allowed near one.

Modern medicine may be expensive and over-prescribed, but as a rule it doesn’t contain heroin.

In the late 1800s, Bayer added heroin to their cough suppressant for kids, and boy did it work.  But after a few years, people noticed the hospitals were filling up with addicts.  They still weren’t coughing, but what a trade-off!  By the early 1900s, Bayer pulled the drug.

On the upside, and at about the same time, Bayer brought aspirin to us, and where would we be without it?

Reports from two centuries ago of experimental treatments by the surgeons of the Royal Navy provide additional perspective on today’s healthcare woes: One pneumonia patient had pints of blood removed in an effort to cure him—it was called bloodletting. He still managed to expire, confounding his surgeon.  Another Royal Navy favorite was “tepid salt water baths.” Surprisingly, there were never any survivors of this therapy.  One poor sod who fell overboard and nearly drowned had tobacco smoke blown on him as a cure.  He did survive, but ended up hospitalized for pneumonia.

In ancient Mesopotamiaa sorcerer would be called in to determine which god caused what illness in a patient. Having identified the god, the sorcerer would attempt to send it away with charms and spells.  We do not have accurate records as to the success rate of this treatment.

The Egyptians believed mightily in the practice of medicine and left copious notes on papyrus for following generations.  Dr. Bob Brier shared some of their cures in his book, Ancient Egyptian Magic. After reading a bit, our mood elevated, our perspective shifted, and we decided to just shut up and soldier on, happy with the modern medicine we have.

In case you’re curious about what was written on some of that papyrus, read on, but do not try this at home:

Cure for Indigestion

  • Crush a hog’s tooth and put it inside of four sugar cakes. Eat for four days.

Cure for Burns

  • Create a mixture of milk of a woman who has borne a male child, gum, and ram’s hair. While administering this mixture say:

Thy son Horus is burnt in the desert. Is there any water there? There is no water. I have water in my mouth and a Nile between my thighs. I have come to extinguish the fire.

Cure for Lesions of the Skin

  • After the scab has fallen off put on it: Scribe’s excrement. Mix in fresh milk and apply as a poultice.

Cure for Cataracts

  • Mix brain-of-tortoise with honey. Place on the eye and say:

There is a shouting in the southern sky in darkness, There is an uproar in the northern sky, The Hall of Pillars falls into the waters. The crew of the sun god bent their oars so that the heads at his side fall into the water, Who leads hither what he finds? I lead forth what I find. I lead forth your heads. I lift up your necks. I fasten what has been cut from you in its place. I lead you forth to drive away the god of Fevers and all possible deadly arts.

Modern healthcare certainly has its problems, but at least today’s patients are free of spells, tobacco smoke and bloodletting. Is that better than a 4-hour ER visit? You be the judge.








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