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Old May 1st, 2008, 02:45 AM   #1
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Default 19th Century Epidemics in North America- For Historical Fiction

The 19th century in America is noted for being one riddled with epidemics, most notably the cholera epidemic starting in 1832 in the big cities like New York. However, other diseases running rampant included yellow fever, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza, measles, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. The best breeding grounds were, of course, the large cities like New York (where the cholera epidemic began) because they were densely packed and riddled with bad hygiene and sanitation. Since at this moment in time, medicine and pathology were not sufficiently understood, there was no way to adequately protect the population from the diseases, thus resulting in a massive epidemic.

Currently, yellow fever, an acute viral disease with symptoms of jaundice, is an "extinct" epidemic in North America; the last recorded case was in New Orleans in 1905. Yellow fever is thought to have begun with the arrival of the Spaniards and Columbus to the Americas. The first officially recorded case of yellow fever is in 1648 in the Yucatan Peninsula. The decades pass and, in 1693, Boston becomes the first colony to suffer yellow fever. From then until 1800, yellow fever spreads like wildfire, killing people by the thousands, such as in 1793 when it killed 5,000 people in Philadelphia. Between 1800 and 1822, which is the start of the century that is of interest, yellow fever appears to have been eradicated north of the Mason-Dixon Line but it continues to pillage the South. In 1853, New Orleans suffers the worst exposure: yellow fever kills 8,100 people. It gets worse when a ship unwittingly carrying yellow fever docks in Norfolk, Virginia. The massive amounts of deaths force the South to barricade their lands from contact with the Caribbean and South America between 1861 and 1865. This blockade significantly reduces the amount of yellow fever deaths. However, upon taking down the blockade, yellow fever returns with a vengeance to New Orleans, killing 3,000 people. The year 1878 is one of more significant moments in the history of yellow fever: 47,000 residents flee Memphis when they see that yellow fever has arrived in their city. In December, with the establishment of a board to investigate how to deal with the epidemic, a quarantine is called. Also as a result, in 1879, the National Board of Health is founded. The final note is in 1900, when scientific investigations finally go underway and, in December of that year, fourteen volunteers are infected with yellow fever and all of them recover thanks to the discoveries and the sacrifice of scientist Jesse Lazear. Because of the terrible horror inflicted by this disease, the epidemic was called The Great Fever.

From 1800 to 1922, another fear of the American and European people is tuberculosis or consumption, a deadly infectious disease that attacks mainly the lungs, but also the nervous system, the circulatory system, the lymphatic system, bones, joints, and skin. The symptoms are familiar, as they are now used in movies set in this time period: coughing up blood, chest pain, a prolonged cough, fever, appetite loss, fatigue, and pallor. Again, because of lack of knowledge in medicine, tuberculosis (TB) is thought to be hereditary in the early 19th century, but by the end of it with infections in cities with rates close or up to 100%, it is also considered to be a sign of poverty or the inevitable consequence of industrialization. The first recorded treatment is developed in the early 1800s by Englishman James Carson, who injected air into a cavity that would cause the lung to collapse and allow it to heal; understandably, the practice goes nowhere. The first commonly-used practice is that of the sanatoriums, where tuberculosis patients are taken to quiet places with lots of fresh air and no stress and allowed to heal. It is not until 1882 that the practice of collapsing the lung is rediscovered and used as a cure for the early stages of tuberculosis. The discovery of penicillin effectively combats TB after the 1850's.

By the 19th century, malaria, a tropical disease which includes fever, vomiting, anemia, joint pain, and epilepsy, has already become global problem. It is transmitted through mosquitoes and is most prevalent in the heat, hence why it is mostly seen in the tropics. However, during the 1800s, malaria prevails in the Southern United States and in port cities. To combat malaria, people use cinchona bark which contains quinine. In 1820, two French chemists isolate the quinine. In 1880, scientific progress takes a step forward when French army doctor Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran observes parasites for the first time inside the infected red blood cells. Along with malaria, people fear scarlet fever, or scarlatina, a disease characterized by a sore throat, fever, a strawberry-colored tongue, and a sandpaper rash along the body caused by a bacterial exotoxin. It may also develop into rheumatic fever, with an incubation period of one to four days. The most vulnerable are children between the ages of 2 and 10. It becomes common practice during its height to burn all effects of the afflicted persons to prevent spreading the disease.

The people continue to be plagued during the 19th century with the sharp arrival of diphtheria, an upper respiratory tract illness characterized by a sore throat, fever, and an adherent membrane on the tonsils, pharynx, and nasal cavity. Diphtheria hit hardest during the 1890's, when New York averages 7,200 cases per year between 1891 and 1895. Currently, it is still at large in European and American countries; boosters should be applied once every ten years to maintain immunity. Another disease that would soon become familiar is measles, especially in 1847 when hundreds of Cayuse Indians in the Pacific Northwest die from it. The barricade mentioned at the beginning, set into effect in 1861, doesn't protect the South from other diseases rampant during the US Civil War, which includes measles.

If there is anything else for society to fear, the second biggest pandemic has yet to arrive. Following the straing of cholera, the influenza pandemic finds its origins in Russia and spreads to the Americas over a two year period, between 1847 and 1848. The worst of the virus is yet to coming. The Asiatic influenza settles in Bukhara, Russia and begins to travel much like any other flu, through people and animals, especially birds. Closely following the strikedown of Western Europe in November of 1889, North America falls prey to this pandemic that brings with it a high attack rate and a high chance of mortality through the development into pneumonia. These are two of the eight major outbreaks of influenza in the nineteenth century.

If anything, the 1800s are noted for being the years of the plagues. The unhealthy sanitation and lack of general hygiene only increased attack rates, mortality percentages, and the chances of a strain festering in a town. In 1832, the cholera epidemic took its roots and became one of the worst epidemics to ever hit the Americas, beaten only by the Avian flue and the influenza epidemic of 1918. With the progress of science and healthy and the founding of health boards and hospitals, society discovered how to protect themselves from disease.

E.F.C.

-----

I'll post my bibliography later.
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Old May 1st, 2008, 11:18 AM   #2
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Default Re: 19th Century Epidemics in North America

This will hopefully be useful for people writing historical fiction!
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Old May 2nd, 2008, 10:45 AM   #3
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Default Re: 19th Century Epidemics in North America- For Historical Fiction

I love how starting from the yellow fever paragraph, each subsequent paragraph is a little smaller. *facepalm* Almost done with my bibliography!
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