Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Plus ça change: Infectious Diseases Past & Present



“It troubled me to pass by Coome farme where about twenty-one people have died of the plague, and three or four days since I saw a dead corps in a coffin lie in the Close unburied, and a watch is constantly kept there night and day to keep the people in, the plague making us cruel, as doggs, one to another.”[1]
                                                                                 - Samuel Pepys, Monday 4 September, 1665.
“My parents said, quite a few times, that they wish I died.  I’m not sure that wouldn’t have been a better thing.  I’d come crawling through the living room, when they had company, and the subject would change, as to why I wasn’t walking and what was wrong.  They didn’t want anybody to know about it.  It’s something that’s contagious, and nobody wanted to be around it, for fear of catching it.  They would put me in the closet when they had company.”[2]
                                                                - Rick Spalsbury contracted polio in 1945 at the age of 2.
“Racial tension has swept through a block of flats in a suburb favoured by upwardly mobile immigrants where one resident has gone down with the disease despite having no direct exposure to carriers. ‘Our parents and our teacher told us to keep away from Chinese,’ said Narges Aziz, a nine-year-old whose parents were born in Afghanistan. ‘It's scary.’ Narges and her brother Daoud both wore surgical masks and surgical gloves to avoid infection when opening the door to the flats in the suburb of Scarborough.”[3]
                          - Marcus Warren "Sars spreads racial tension as Toronto feels pariah status," 2003.
“Warranted or not, the Ebola scare has hit Howard Yocum Elementary School in Maple Shade, New Jersey. The school has been notifying parents that two students from an east African nation have enrolled. They were supposed to begin classes on Monday; however, after backlash from parents, those kids are now being kept out of school.  The children in question moved here from Rwanda, which is about 2600 miles away from the closest affected country in West Africa. That's about as close as Seattle, Washington is to Philadelphia. But for some parents it really doesn't matter. ‘Anybody from that area should just stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There's nobody affected here let's just keep it that way,” said parent John Povlow.’”[4]
                                                              - Chris O'Connell "Burlington Students Kept Home," 2014.
Infectious diseases breed fear.  That this fear is then compounded by ignorance and whispered rumours, media, and our own imaginations is simply a fact of life.  Recently these fears have been reflected, perhaps too well, in news articles prophesying new superbugs and the end of civilization.
     
Disease, however, is an inevitable part of life.  As Tony McMichael wrote in his Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease, “as the scale of social-demographic change and of human impact on the ecosphere escalates, so the probabilities of infectious diseases, both new and resurgent, increase.”[5]  

Indeed, only in the past 50 years we’ve identified the following diseases and/or their pathogens: ebola (1976), Lyme disease (1982) HIV (1988), Hepatitis C (1989), “Mad Cow” disease and H5N1 bird flu (1997).[6]  We face the re-emergence of diseases like plague (bubonic), tuberculosis, and polio.

It is no wonder that we see pictures of people wearing surgical masks and homemade hazmat suits, or that sales of hand sanitizer have increased significantly, and that there are companies preying on people’s desperation by selling unapproved remedies.  In response to everything from the Justinian plague, to the sweating sickness, to influenza, SARS, and now ebola, humans have reacted in both truly heroic and truly horrible and illogical ways. 

Fear, panic, and anger, it seems, are universal reactions to infectious disease that transcend time.  As public health services seek to confine disease, it’s up to the rest of us to act responsibly and compassionately. 
--------------------
For the second half of this post, Dr. Heather Battles shares some of the similarities between the mid-20th century polio epidemic and the current crisis over ebola:

The fear and panic over Ebola today echoes similar reactions in previous epidemics in human history - including polio in Canada in the mid-20th century.
Globe and Mail, August 18 1937, pg. 4
In an incident reminiscent of recent stories of people donning plastic body suits and face masks at airports out of fear of Ebola, during the 1937 polio epidemic in Ontario a tourist reportedly arrived at Niagara Falls wearing a gas mask.[7]  During that same epidemic, a Letter to the Editor by someone who signed himself “Family-Man” called for American tourists to be subjected to a medical examination upon entering Canada.[8]

Along with such anecdotes about individuals, the news media often presented contradictory and confusing messages about polio (sound familiar?).[9]  A 1948 Maclean’s article entitled “Don’t Panic Over Polio” attempted to reassure worried parents that polio was really a fairly uncommon disease and that their children’s chances of contracting it and either dying or being crippled by it were relatively low.[10]  However, the same article describes polio as “among the most mysterious of mankind’s afflictions”[11] and “the most difficult human disease to diagnose”[12] with “no known drug or treatment that can ward off paralysis.”[13] 

A further example of contradictory messages from media and public health officials can be found in three articles from the Globe and Mail newspaper in August of 1937.  One article reported on August 7 that three new paralytic polio cases had arisen and that officials were warning parents that all children with flu-like symptoms, which could be the start of polio, should be examined by a doctor.[14]  Another article on August 11 advised that “no complaint should be overlooked.”[15] Then on August 18, the page four headline screamed “Unfounded Paralysis Fear Causes Near Panic: Parents’ Imagination Blamed for Influx of Tots to Hospital.”[16]  The article quotes health officials as blaming parents for panicking and acting hysterical when most cases turn out not to be polio.[17]  Clive Seale notes in his book Media and Health that it is common for newspapers to appeal to readers “not to panic” while their stories encourage just that.[18]

Plus ça change…

Let me/us know what you think here or on Twitter, I’m @medhistorian with @anthroetc


[1] Diary of Samuel Pepys, 4 September 1665.
[2] Julie Silver and Daniel Wilson, Polio Voices: An Oral History from the American Polio Epidemics and Worldwide Eradication Efforts, Greenwood Publishing Group (2007), 67-68.
 [5] Tony McMichael, Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease: Past Patterns, Uncertain Futures, Cambridge University Press (2001), 122.
[6] Ibid., 115-116.
[7] Leslie Scrivener, “The Plague of ’37: When Polio Hit Toronto Schools and 758 Lives Changed Forever,” Toronto Star, September 6 1987, D1.
[8] Globe and Mail, September 2 1937, 6.
[9] Kathryn Black, In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996), 46-47.
[10] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 7.
[11] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 7.
[12] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 32.
[13] Nevill, “Don’t Panic Over Polio,” 33.
[14] Globe and Mail, August 7 1937, 4.
[15] Globe and Mail, August 11 1937, 6.
[16] Globe and Mail, August 18 1937, 4.
[17] Globe and Mail, August 18 1937, 4.
[18] Clive Seale, Media and Health (London: SAGE Publications, 2002), 81.

8 comments:

  1. Quite an eye opening and informative article this is. Science and medication has evolved in the last few decades. While we have identified diseases, what matters to the common man is, is science discovering the treatments in the same speed or not

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    1. I was having serious relationship problems with my boyfriend and it had resulted in him moving out to his friend’s apartment. Everything got worse because he started going to bars and strip clubs frequently with his friend, getting drunk and passing out. He always threatens me on phone whenever I call him because of all the bad advises that his friend has given him. I really love him and we had been dating for 6 years which gave us a beautiful daughter. I had also lost a lot of money on therapists until I was introduced to Dr. Okaya by a friend whom he helped to marry her childhood boyfriend; this gave me total confidence and strength to get him back. I did all he asked and after 48 hours my boyfriend called me and rushed back home, things just changed between us emotionally. He has a job and stopped drinking and keeping irrelevant friends. It’s a miracle I never believed was possible because I had lost all hope until I found Dr.Okaya. So that’s why I promised to share my testimony all over the universe. All thanks goes to Dr.Okaya for the excessive work that he has done for me. Below is the email address in situation you are undergoing a heart break, and I assure you that as he has done mine for me, he will definitely help you too. OKAYASPELLHELP@GMAIL.COM call/Whatsapp +27814506790

      Delete
  3. Dr. Sam has really made me so much believe in him by getting me cured with his herbal treatment. I really appreciate you Dr. Sam for bringing back happiness to my life again. thank you so much, friends join me to thank him for what he has actually done for me I pray to you all for a good life and good health, and most especially to you Dr. Sam THANKS.

    I have been suffering from (HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS) disease for the past four years and had constant pain, especially in my knees. During the first year, I had faith in God that I would be healed someday. This disease started circulating all over my body and i have been taking treatment from my doctor, few months ago i came on search on the internet if i could get any information concerning the cure of this disease, on my search i saw a testimony of someone who has been healed from (HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS) by this Man Dr. Sam and she drop the email address of this man and advise we should contact him for any sickness that he would be of help, so I wrote to Dr. Sam telling him about my (HERPES Virus) well after all the procedures and remedy given to me by this man a few weeks later i started experiencing changes all over me. I am nowhere to testify that i am no longer a herpes patient, I have experienced a total transformation in my life, for all herpes patients get your herbal medicine to cure your sickness. And there has been rapid improvement in my health, I no longer feel pains and I wake up each morning feeling revived. So friends my advise is if you have such sickness or any other at all, you can contact him. (Supremecurehome@gmail.com) Website: http://www.supremecurehome.blogspot.com
    CANCER
    EPILEPSY.
    GENPILENCIN.
    HIV AIDS.
    DIABETICS
    STROKE.
    EXPANDS OF PENIS BREAST
    H.P.V TYPE 1 TYPE 2 TYPE 3 AND TYPE 4. TYPE 5.
    HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS.
    HERPES.
    SYPHILIS.
    HEPATITIS A B and C.

    Email: Supremecurehome@gmail.com Or WhatsApp number +2347087462033

    ReplyDelete

  4. I was having serious relationship problems with my boyfriend and it had resulted in him moving out to his friend’s apartment. Everything got worse because he started going to bars and strip clubs frequently with his friend, getting drunk and passing out. He always threatens me on phone whenever I call him because of all the bad advises that his friend has given him. I really love him and we had been dating for 6 years which gave us a beautiful daughter. I had also lost a lot of money on therapists until I was introduced to Dr. Okaya by a friend whom he helped to marry her childhood boyfriend; this gave me total confidence and strength to get him back. I did all he asked and after 48 hours my boyfriend called me and rushed back home, things just changed between us emotionally. He has a job and stopped drinking and keeping irrelevant friends. It’s a miracle I never believed was possible because I had lost all hope until I found Dr.Okaya. So that’s why I promised to share my testimony all over the universe. All thanks goes to Dr.Okaya for the excessive work that he has done for me. Below is the email address in situation you are undergoing a heart break, and I assure you that as he has done mine for me, he will definitely help you too. OKAYASPELLHELP@GMAIL.COM call/Whatsapp +27814506790

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