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Tuberculosis strain spread by the fur trade reveals stealthy approach of epidemics

transmitted by someone with an active infection who is in close contact with others. The only time when French Canadians and the native peoples of Canada had substantial contact of that kind was during the fur trade era, so that had to be when the strain spread from the traders to the natives, Feldman and Pepperell said.

It was common during that era for traders to live in close contact with the native peoples, sometimes for months or years at a time. Enough of them formed close relationships that their unions gave rise to the people known as the Mtis, who are of mixed indigenous and French Canadian ancestry.

"There were handfuls of cases of TB stretched out over this long time period, where clearly TB was being transmitted, but the number of cases was such that it was not obvious to anyone at the time," Pepperell said.

"TB, from what we can tell, was just kind of rumbling along at this very low level and probably would have continued that way, or even petered out completely, if it wasn't for the deplorable living conditions on the reserves," she said.

But by 1870 the era of the fur trade in its traditional, canoe-based form was over. There was no longer any need for the voyageurs, as furs were now transported by train. Most of the indigenous tribes had been relocated to reservations, and forays by French Canadians largely ceased.

At the same time, the influx of settlers to western Canada skyrocketed. The population of western Canada grew from 110,000 in 1871 to 750,000 in 1911.

Based on another researcher's analysis of original documents from the Hudson's Bay Company and other primary sources, Pepperell and Feldman estimate that only about 5,500 voyageurs had penetrated what was then the western wilderness during the entire 160-year span of the fur trade.

In spite of the huge numbers of immigrants after 1870 from regions in Europe, America and East Asia with high incidences of TB, these more recently ar

Contact: Louis Bergeron
Stanford University

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