Tag Archives: smallpox

Ebola – lessons from the past

The Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death* – tend to work as a team. War brings famine (and famine, or at least land shortage, brings war). Hunger makes people vulnerable to infectious diseases – and pestilence, famine and war all bring death.

Durer Four Horsement

Albrecht Durer , The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497-8)

But sometimes a new disease turns up unexpectedly, like Ebola in West Africa right now, or smallpox in the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, or the Plague of Justinian in 541AD, the first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, better known from its second appearance in 1347 as the Black Death.

Historians are good are looking back and finding explanations, and epidemic diseases are most deadly when certain preconditions exist: poverty, poor hygiene, poor nutrition and over-population all make things worse. But sometimes, there are no preconditions, and it doesn’t do to blame the victims: the Aztecs were doing just fine until the Spanish arrived, bringing smallpox to a population that had no immunity to the disease. Continue reading

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The return of the childhood killers: measles, mumps and the rest

Measles is coming back.  According to the Courier Mail, since August 16 people have contracted it in southeast Queensland, and the Chief Health Officer is writing to families of unvaccinated children urging them to get their children vaccinated.  A boy came back from overseas recently with measles, and yesterday there were radio warnings for people who had been at Movieworld – Movieworld! – on 2 October to go to their doctors if they felt ill.

I had measles when I was 6 or so, and trust me, you will feel ill.  For nearly 2 weeks, I lay in a darkened room because my eyes hurt so – measles causes blindness – and the rash, the high temperature and general disability made me utterly dependent on my very non-non-working mother to nurse me through it. I also remember going back to school, and having trouble catching up – in geography they had ‘done’ Continents and Peninsulas while I was away, and I gave up geography soon afterwards.

I wasn’t here for the polio epidemic that hit southeast Queensland in the early 1950s, but I had a friend with a withered arm from the disease they still called ‘infantile paralysis’.  Another friend remembered how she had a friend for a sleepover, who was diagnosed a few days later with polio.  Her mother stripped her room of everything – sheets, bedding, clothes, rugs, toys – and burnt them in the backyard.  She doesn’t remember what happened to her friend.  What she remembers was her toys piled on the bonfire, and the terror in her mother’s eyes.

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