Culture, contagions & epic epidemics

Jan 7, 2017

Recent epidemics like Ebola and the Zika virus worried health officials and ordinary citizens alike. But they paled in comparison to some historical outbreaks like the bubonic plague and the Spanish flu. Outbreaks of disease fascinate and scare us, but more importantly, inform us about how to cope with the next fast-spreading contagion that comes along.

This week on “Take Care,” the author of a new book explores the history-making epidemics and what can be learned from them. Beth Skwarecki is a science writer for publications including Public Health Perspectives, Lifehacker, Science Magazine, and Scientific American. Her new book is "Outbreak!: 50 Tales of Epidemics That Terrorized the World."

Many of us are fascinated with the stories of past disease outbreaks. Skwarecki says that’s because epidemics often changed history. Plus they were dramatic, epic events. For example, the Black Death in the 14th century impacted an entire continent. And, Swarecki says, these outbreaks are far enough in the past that we have just enough distance to appreciate them and not be scared by them.

In her book, she looks at different outbreaks of the same diseases over time. Malaria has struck different places in different centuries, as has leprosy.

“It’s really interesting to see how people handled it different ways in different times,” says Swarecki.

In the 13th century, people didn’t know much about leprosy, so it was quite the scary disease. But fast forward to the 20th century, and Hawaii kept exiling people even after there was a microbial treatment discovered for it.

Swarecki says the way different cultures at different times handled epidemics not only impacted the course of the outbreaks, but says a lot about those individual cultures.

How diseases are spread

As history went on, diseases spread from culture to culture. As travel through the world started to occur, one of the first things that was traded was not commercial goods, but sickness.

“When two cultures meet, their diseases will meet, too,” says Swarecki.

How diseases are controlled

Many of us learned in history class that the small pox vaccine was developed from cowpox in England in the late 1700s. But, according to Swarecki, vaccination of small pox was being done in Africa and China in the 1600s. And in fact, legend has it that immunization started in China as early as 1000 AD.

But, Swarecki says the way the English and Europeans practiced medicine, inoculation didn’t make sense to them.

Lessons learned?

A common thread in epidemics, according to Swarecki, is a reaction that involves overreach. Particularly when it comes to quarantines. Swarecki says “typhoid Mary” got locked up for life because she was contagious, but probably wouldn’t have been quarantined had she not been a single woman. Hundreds of others who were known spreaders of typhoid did not get imprisoned like she did.

Other examples, according to Swarecki, include: a quarantine that singled out Chinatown in San Francisco when bubonic plague hit; and the rounding up of Jews during the Black Death.