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Study of ancient and modern plagues finds common features
Date:11/21/2008

ons to microbes against which they have no pre-existing immunity. This last factor played a key role in the smallpox epidemic that afflicted the Aztecs of 16th century Mexico. Smallpox had ravaged European communities for centuries, but until the Spanish arrived on the Yucatan coast in 1519, the disease was unknown in the New World. Historians believe that some 3.5 million people in central Mexico died in the first year of the epidemic.

Epidemics also can spur advances in public health, note the authors. They point to the yellow fever epidemics of 1793-98, which began in the then-U.S. capital, Philadelphia. Though the entire federal government and most Philadelphians fled, those who remained formed an emergency government and mobilized such marginalized groups as African-Americans and immigrants to fight the outbreak. In 1798, Congress established the Marine Hospital Systemforerunner of the modern U.S. Public Health Serviceto provide, at public expense, medical care for sick and injured merchant seamen. Historians generally agree that a prime impetus for creating the Marine Hospital System was the yellow fever epidemics.

Modern epidemiology began in reaction to another epidemic, says Dr. Morens. In the early 1830s, as cholera made its way along waterways from Asia towards Europe, French officials attempted to prepare their country in advance of an outbreak. Teams of scientists were sent to Poland and Russia to observe the outbreaks there. Throughout France, coastal health agencies and new quarantine stations were established; in Paris, a network of health inspection offices was created to coordinate inspection of wells, cesspools and latrines of both public and private buildings. Despite these efforts, cholera arrived in Paris on March 29, 1832, with explosive effectwithin two weeks, there were 1,000 cases, 85 percent of them fatal. Daily newspapers published lists of cases allowing armchair epidemiologists to see trends in illness and deaths. "F
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Contact: Anne A. Oplinger
aoplinger@niaid.nih.gov
301-402-1663
NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Source:Eurekalert

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