Variations | Worth recalling

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THE British historian Gavin Mortimer says that amid the still unfolding global tragedy that is the Covid-19 outbreak, “it will be far better for our morale to read Pepys than it will today’s newspapers [he probably meant ‘media outlets’ including social media], which seem hell-bent on panicking people with their alarmist and speculative headlines.”

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) served as administrator of England’s navy and was a member of Parliament, but it was his diaries that made him famous. He wrote about life in London when it was ravaged by the bubonic plague in 1665-66. The disease, which was transmitted by fleas that lived on rats, killed around 20% of London’s population, Gavin Mortimer wrote in The Spectator recently. “Once infected, the chances of surviving…were terrifyingly slim; most people…‘were immediately overwhelmed with it, and it came to violent fevers, vomitings, insufferable headaches, pain in the back, and so up to ravings and ragings with those pains.’ ”

In his recent column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, another historian, Ambeth R. Ocampo, mentioned a book written by an American doctor, Victor George Heiser, who served as health director of the American colonial government in the Philippines from 1903 (some say 1902) to 1915.

Ocampo said when Heiser arrived in Manila, “plague and cholera were rampant in the city: 40,000 unvaccinated people died of smallpox annually, 50,000 were dead from tuberculosis, thousands had beriberi, over 10,000 were afflicted with leprosy, and insane people were chained like animals and hidden in homes. Not to mention that medical care had not reached 300,000 people in the mountains, and the Philippines had the highest infant mortality rate in the world.”

Deadly infectious diseases, to be sure, used to be common in many parts of the world until science eradicated them. In today’s crisis, The Wall Street Journal said, “it’s worth recalling [science’s] celebrated victories.”

In the U.S., in 1955, thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk, polio was conquered. Polio was, Professor David Oshinsky wrote in the WSJ recently, an “insidious childhood disease that came like clockwork each summer during the middle years of the 20th century, killing thousands and crippling many more…. New vaccines soon followed — for measles, mumps and rubella. Coupled with earlier laboratory miracles, including the introduction of antibiotics like penicillin and streptomycin, Americans saw a huge jump in their life expectancy, driven by the precipitous decline of infectious diseases.”

Oshinsky noted that during World War I, more American soldiers died from influenza (63,114) than from battle wounds (53,402). The influenza pandemic of 1918, moreover, killed up to 50 million people worldwide.

“Infectious diseases were once so common, so deadly, that Americans had little choice but to accept the toll they exacted with stoicism and dread. Death by epidemic remained a natural, if depressing, part of American life until just a few generations ago.”

Oshinsky said in 1793, yellow fever — a virus transmitted by the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito — killed 10% of Philadelphia’s population. At the time, Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the young North American Republic. Americans, Oshinsky said, “were stumped by [yellow fever’s] spread. The fact that a vector as tiny as a mosquito could cause a catastrophe of this magnitude was simply beyond anyone’s comprehension…. The diaries…doctors left behind show how completely they missed the signals that now seem so obvious today…. It would be another full century before Dr. Walter Reed confirmed the transmission of the disease by mosquito, which led, in turn, to the draining of swamps, the screening of windows, the development of insecticides and eventually a vaccine.”

In the other great city of the U.S, New York, “hardly a decade went by in the 1700s without a serious smallpox eruption. One outbreak in 1731 killed more than 500 of the city’s 10,000 residents, roughly three times the percentage of New Yorkers who would die in the influenza pandemic of 1918.” Soon, Oshinsky said, diseases like scarlet fever, measles, typhus and diphtheria would come “in giant waves.” But for sheer terror, he added, “nothing quite matched cholera, which repeatedly brought New York to a stop.”

Cholera, a bacterial disease, was “spread through food and water contaminated by the excrement of infected victims,” and caused “the body to expel enormous quantities of liquids through vomiting and explosive diarrhea.” There was no incubation period, Oshinksy said. “The victim can be fine in the morning and dead by nightfall.”

Authorities did not have a clue as to its cause so they blamed it on “miasmas” (“bad air”) and “other people” — that is, the slum-dwellings immigrants from Ireland.

“How did other New Yorkers approach cholera? In medieval fashion: They quarantined the victims and then humbled themselves before God. Sermons, prayers and fasting were highly recommended; if all else failed, run like hell….”

In 1870, Oshinsky wrote, one child in five born in New York City would not live to see his first birthday, and 25% of those who did reach adulthood would die before the age of 30. But in the mid-1950s, during the era of Dr. Salk and miracle drugs, some experts were confident enough to predict a future without infectious disease.

“It hasn’t turned out that way,” Oshinsky said, referring to AIDS, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, swine flu, superbugs and now Covid-19. Today, he said, we’re “in frightening new territory, wondering if there is enough protective equipment for medical personnel and first responders, if there are enough test kits and ventilators for possible victims, if an effective vaccine is really a year or so away.”

But history, he added, “assures us that Covid-19 will be conquered by science and that another virus, originating in a bat cave, a pig farm or an open-air poultry market somewhere in the world, will rise up to take its place. That’s the nature of the beast.”

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