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Marauding Microbes: Health Scares Throughout History

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Marauding Microbes and Health Scares Throughout History kasto/Fotolia

Infectious illness is older than recorded history. As organisms, we humans are constantly susceptible to threats from viruses and bacteria in search of a host.

Here are just three among the many illnesses that have struck fear in humanity over the centuries.


Smallpox is a highly contagious, deadly disease responsible for 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone, according to the World Health Organization.

After a 14-day incubation period, flu-like symptoms give rise to a rash of red spots that morph into pus-filled, oozing lesions — lesions which also invade the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. Victims who managed to survive were left with deep, disfiguring pockmarks all over their bodies.

Smallpox is an ancient virus whose origins predate history. Mummies from 18th and 20th Egyptian dynasties (1570–1085 B.C.) show evidence of the disease.

Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors unintentionally brought the disease to the New World, precipitating the eradication of the Mayan and Incan cultures. The decimation of native cultures was termed an “unpredictable grotesque torture” by historian Donald R. Hopkins.

Smallpox gave birth to biological warfare. According to Stefan Riedel, M.D., PhD., “During the French-Indian War (1754–1767), Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of the British forces in North America, suggested the deliberate use of smallpox to diminish the American Indian population hostile to the British.”

In the 18th century in Europe, 400,000 people died of the so-called “speckled monster” annually. The last case of smallpox was recorded in 1977. Shortly thereafter, in 1980, it was declared eradicated by the World Health Assembly.

Two vials still exist under lock and key — one in the United States and one in Russia. In the face of a persistent threat of biological warfare, the ability to produce a smallpox vaccine is not lost.

Black Death

Where there are rodents in large numbers and high density, there is the bacterium Yersinia pestis, or the bubonic plague. Rats enjoy the company of humans, the warmth provided by their homes and the feast by their garbage. When rats infected with Yersinia pestis begin dying, fleas on those rats seek new hosts — humans — spreading the disease.

Ole J. Benedictow, professor emeritus of History at the Universtiy of Oslo, Norway, postulates that the Black Death took 50 million lives during the years 1346-53 — that’s 60 percent of Europe’s entire population at the time.

“The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking,” observed Agnolo di Tura, a chronicler from Siena, Italy, who lost his own wife and five children to the illness.

He described the horrific scene:

“And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. I . . . buried my five children with my own hands. . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”

Think it’s an illness from the ancient past? Eleven cases of plague have been reported in the United States this year, just between April 21st and August 25th. While untreated plague has a mortality rate up to 93 percent, with antibiotics that rate decreases to 16 percent, according to the CDC.


Ebola first emerged in 1976, infecting over 284 people with a 53 percent mortality rate. A second strain emerged a few months later, this time with an 88 percent mortality rate, according to Stanford.edu.

It is a disease of the forest, where temperature, bats, and terrain combine to foment an outbreak. According the the New York Times, “At least 10, and probably most, of the 24 outbreaks across Africa began with a person touching the blood or meat of an infected ape, monkey, bat or other animal killed for bush meat.”

The 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history, with widespread outbreaks in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nigeria, Senegal and Mali had a few well-contained cases. In the United States, two patients were imported for treatment after which one died, and two cases were contracted by health care workers.

The Economist reported 28,041 Ebola cases worldwide as of August 2015. Of those infected, 11,302 died.

For an exhaustive list of human vulnerability to disease, read Dorothy H. Crawford’s ”Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History .”

And wash your hands.


1) Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination. ncbi.nih.org. Retrieved October 21, 2015.

2) 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa - Outbreak Distribution Map. cdc.gov. Retrieved October 21, 2015.

3) Brief General History of Ebola. Stanford.edu. Retrieved October 21, 2015.

4) A History of Ebola in 24 Outbreaks. nytimes.com. Retrieved October 21, 2015.

5) The toll of a tragedy. economist.com. Retrieved October 21, 2015.

6) Smallpox. mayoclinic.org. Retrieved October 21, 2015.

7) The Black Death: Greatest Catastrophe Ever. historytoday.com. Retrieved October 22, 2015.

8) Agnolo di Tura del Grasso (Chronicler, 14th Century Siena). alchemidpedia.com. Retrieved October 22, 2015.

9) Human Plague — United States, 2015. cdc.org. Retrieved October 22, 2015.

Reviewed October 22, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



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