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History repeats - yellow fever and COVID-19

History repeats—yellow fever and COVID-19

See if this sounds familiar: misinformation, disinformation, and incomplete information are applied to an epidemic, its causes and treatments. A deadly disease emerges from an unknown, foreign source. Some people are sickened, others remain untouched. How it is spread is uncertain. Preventative tactics cause economic harm. Treatments include some that approach the bizarre.

Sure. All these have been in headlines daily for the past two years about COVID-19, in print, television, radio, or online.

Except I am not referring to COVID-19 of the past two years, but to 1878, and the yellow fever epidemic that decimated a wide swath of the southern reach of the Mississippi River.

History repeats.

It is 1878. An outbreak begins in New Orleans, as it has most years, to one degree or another. Where did it come from? Locals did not know, but for years, many in the South called the sickness, “Strangers Disease,” because it was associated with immigrants seeking work and allowed assigning blame. Or “Yellow Jack,” not due to the jaundiced skin of the ill, but the yellow flag ships flew to denote sickness aboard. Another name, “Black Jack,” so named because of the black vomit of some victims before death. 

It was not a new disease, but it was a nasty, deadly disease. In New Orleans alone, 20 years earlier, 13,000 were left dead in just three summers. Sickened people mad with fever ran into the streets before dropping dead. Thousands of others, for unknown reasons, felt no effects. In addition to strangers, the fever was blamed on bad air, filth, and the ill-defined “miasma”—filth and “miasma” were where the poor and the immigrants were concentrated, often low, swampy areas, lacking sanitation. To clean the air, cannons were fired and tar was burned. Because of misinformation, those acts achieved nothing. Well, nothing positive, anyway. The disease inspired fear, as it had when death tolls mounted in earlier years. People fled, as medical refugees. Fleeing New Orleans generally meant on the River, sailing north on river boats. 

Every landing at ports along the River spread the fever, but also spread ruin as small-town economies dried up—local populace either fled or dead. Memphis was the worst. The city, warned of the epidemic heading upriver, tried to protect itself by preventing ship landings, but an infected deckhand slipped ashore outside the city and found his way into town. Ground zero. 

Misinformation flowed. The fever was caused by victims’ soiled clothes or bedding, all of which was burned in the streets. No good. To keep out the bad air, windows were shuttered and stoves were kept burning—in the Memphis summer! Sulfur was burned in houses but, because the fumes were toxic, windows were opened—what about the “bad air” outdoors? The dead were buried quickly, because everyone knew corpses spread disease. The fever came on shipped goods, such as bales of cotton. A ban on shipping cotton harmed growers and shippers; the fever was unharmed. More medical refugees. An estimated 25,000 fled Memphis, many of whom unknowingly took the sickness with them. Lacking ability to flee, 20,000 remained. Of those who stayed, 17,000 were sickened and 5,000 died. The sick were shunned and abandoned. Family members, even sick children, left behind by others fleeing. The fabric of society was unravelling. The Memphis police force had 48 members, 48 before yellow fever, anyway. All but five were sickened; ten died. Doctors and nurses—both locals and those Good Samaritans who came from everywhere to help—faced the same fate as the policeman or the average citizen. The fever did not discriminate; social standing or being a Good Samaritan mattered not; death continued.

At least the lack of information was due to misinformation, not disinformation. No one during the 1878 Memphis epidemic benefited by bad advice, not even gravediggers, their ranks depleted, too. There was no spin on the information—misinformation was due to missing knowledge, not an effort to mislead. 

Science of the day did not have the knowledge at the time. More than 20 years would pass before the cause of yellow fever and its spread would be understood, explained and accepted. 

Not strangers. A mosquito. Not unburied corpses. A mosquito. Not bad air, not miasma. That’s why burning clothes didn’t help, nor did a ban on shipping. Burning tar or sulfur and firing cannons only hurt human lungs and ears, not mosquitoes. The mosquito, Aedes aegypti, which affected human history for millennia, was a suspect, but the idea was soundly rejected in 1881—rejected by misinformation. Not until 1900 was that insect proven to cause yellow fever. 

Information is power. 

In 1878, misinformation about yellow fever occurred because so little was known. Without information, people were left powerless, and many people died.

Think now. Of the COVID-19 virus. So much more is known. Disinformation about the virus occurs, and not because little is known. Far from it. Much is known. Disinformation provides information that misleads. Disinformation occurs because information is power. Again, people are left powerless; again, many people die. 

History repeats.

Featured image by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center via  Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

Recent Comments

  1. Philip R. Columbus

    I think the use of terms like disinformation and misinformation when discussing things like the Yellow Fever events is misleadiing. It’s not like the information on the spread of the disease was known to doctors and scientists but withheld. Rather, it was a lack of scientific knowledge that influenced the spread of the disease. While I can appreciate the desire for current relevance, the terms used appear to be more inflamatory and informing.

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