Living through COVID-19: What can we learn from typhoid epidemics of the past?

by guest contributor Jacob Steere-Williams, PhD, Associate Professor of History, College of Charleston.

Join us for Steere-Williams’ talk on typhoid on September 23. 

For decades, thinking about and learning from past pandemics has largely been an academic exercise, one for historians and archivists who specialize in public health. Now, in the midst of a generation-defining pandemic, COVID-19, there has been an explosion of public interest in epidemics and epidemiology. Before 2020, few Americans outside of infectious disease specialists routinely spoke the words “contact tracing” and “case fatality,” or knew the difference between isolation and quarantine.

The recent surge in popular understandings of epidemics has centered on some familiar examples, such as the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, the mistakenly called “Spanish Flu.”[1] As this was the most significant pandemic of the 20th century, the comparisons make sense, and the public health struggle between individual rights and community health is as apt now as it was then. Other historians, seeing the rise of xenophobia as a cultural response to COVID-19 in the West, have perceptively turned our attention to 19th-century pandemics of cholera and bubonic plague. Then, as now, a uniquely durable, yet startlingly western approach to framing pandemics has been to blame Asian people and Asian cultural practices.[2] 

At a time when the cultural mileage of past pandemics is perhaps at its height in modern history, we might fruitfully turn to the history of a relatively unexplored disease, typhoid fever, to think about our current moment.

Typhoid fever is a food- and water-borne infectious disease, the most virulent of the Salmonella family. The disease continues to wreak havoc on the Global South, killing about 200,000 people each year. In the western world typhoid was at its height in the 19th century, when it was a ubiquitous and insidious reality in North America and Western Europe. In Britain, for example, typhoid annually struck up to 150,000 people, taking the lives of 20,000 each year.

Thomas Godart, “Head and Neck of a Patient Suffering from Typhoid Fever.” Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Typhoid’s patterns of distribution were erratic; it might spare a community for months or even years, then erupt as a local outbreak. Epidemiologists today discuss COVID-19 as a cluster disease, exploding in localized events not unlike the way that typhoid did in the past.

Interestingly, typhoid outbreaks continued after the introduction of early sanitary improvements such as toilets, pumped water, and sanitation systems. In the second half of the 19th century no infectious disease was as central to the rise of public health than typhoid. Typhoid was a model disease because the burgeoning group of public health scientists, the first to call themselves epidemiologists, saw that stopping typhoid’s different pathways—through food, water, and healthy human carriers—could transform the nation through preventive public health.[3]

“Avoid the Grip of the Typhoid Hand,” in G.S. Franklin, “Sanitary Care of Privies” (1899), from “Health and Sanitation: Disease and the Working Poor,” https://www.wm.edu/sites/wmcar/research/danvilledig/millworker-life/health-sanitation/index.php.

The story of typhoid in the 19th century is one deeply tied to the emergence of modern epidemiology, which George Buchanan, Chief Medical Officer of Britain’s central public health office, called “the minute observations of particular outbreaks.”[4] Epidemiological practice does not operate in a vacuum, then or now with COVID-19; it is inherently a political exercise. Everyday people, business owners, and politicians have to be convinced about the science of disease communication, requiring complex rhetorical strategies that tell us a great deal about the inherent struggles of public health.

“Transmission of Typhoid Fever,” in George Whipple, Typhoid Fever; Its Causation, Transmission, and Prevention (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1908).

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Notes

[1] See, for example, a recent blog post in Nursing Clio: Jessica Brabble, Ariel Ludwig, and Thomas Ewing, “‘All the World’s a Harem’: Perceptions of Masked Women During the 1918–19 Flu Pandemic,” Nursing Clio. https://nursingclio.org/2020/09/08/all-the-worlds-a-harem-perceptions-of-masked-women-during-the-1918-1919-flu-pandemic/.

[2] Catherine E. Shoichet, “What historians hear when Trump calls coronavirus ‘Chinese’ and ‘foreign,’” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/12/us/disease-outbreaks-xenophobia-history/index.html.

[3] Graham Mooney, “How to Talk About Freedom During a Pandemic,” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/freedom-pandemic-19th-century/611800/.

[4] George Buchanan, “On the Dry Earth System of Dealing with Excrement,” Annual Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council for 1870. Parliamentary Papers. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1871, 97.

From Cholera to Zika: What History’s Pandemics Tell Us about the Next Contagion

By Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah, today’s guest blogger, is a science journalist and author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola, and Beyond (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, February 2016), from which this piece, including illustrations, is adapted.

On February 23 at 6pm, Shah will moderate the panel “Where Will the Next Pandemic Come From?,” cosponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Register to attend.

Over the past 50 years, more than 300 infectious diseases have either newly emerged or re-emerged into territory where they’ve never been seen before. The Zika virus, a once-obscure pathogen from the forests of Uganda now rampaging across the Americas, is just the latest example. It joins a legion of other diseases that have similarly broken out of earlier constraints, including Ebola in West Africa, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the Middle East, and novel avian influenzas in Asia, one of which hit the U.S poultry industry last spring, causing the biggest animal disease epidemic in U.S history.

When such pathogens spread like a wave across continents and global populations, they cause pandemics, from the Greek pan (“all”) and demos (“people”). Given the number of pathogens in our midst with pandemic-causing biological capacities, pandemics themselves are relatively rare. In modern history, only a few pathogens have been able to cause them: Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague; variola, which causes smallpox; influenza A; HIV; and cholera.

Cholera is one of the history’s most successful pandemic-causing pathogens. The first cholera pandemic began in the Sundarbans in present-day Bangladesh in 1817. Since then, it has ravaged the planet in no fewer than seven pandemics, the latest of which is currently smoldering just a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida, in Haiti.

Cholera first perfected the art of pandemics by exploiting the rapid changes in transportation, trade, and demography unleashed by the dawn of the factory age. New, fast-moving transatlantic clipper ships and sailing packets, which moved millions of Europeans into North America, brought cholera to the New World in 1832. Thanks to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the bacterial pathogen easily spread throughout the country, including into the canal’s southern terminus, New York City, which suffered repeated cholera epidemics over the course of decades.

The spread of cholera after the opening of the Erie Canal.

Cholera was well-poised to exploit the filth of 19th-century cities. The pathogen spreads through contaminated human waste. And outhouses, privies, and cesspools covered about 1/12 of New York City, none of which were serviced by sewer systems and few of which were ever emptied. (Those that were had their untreated contents unceremoniously dumped into the Hudson or East Rivers.) The contents of countless privies and cesspools spilled out into the streets, leaked into the city’s shallow street-corner wells, and trickled into the groundwater.

Even those who enjoyed piped water were vulnerable to the contagion. The company chartered by New York State to deliver drinking water to the city’s residents—the Manhattan Company, which started a bank now known as JPMorgan Chase—dug their well among the tenements of the notoriously crowded Five Points slum, in what is today part of Chinatown. They delivered the slum’s undoubtedly contaminated groundwater to one third of the city’s residents.

The 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City. the Manhattan Company, now JP Morgan Chase, sank its well amidst the privies and cesspools of the Five Points slum, atop the site of the Collection Pond, which had been filled in with garbage. The water was distributed to 1/3 of the city of New York.

The 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City. The Manhattan Company, now JP Morgan Chase, sank its well amidst the privies and cesspools of the Five Points slum, atop the site of the Collection Pond, which had been filled in with garbage. The water was distributed to 1/3 of the city of New York.

Just as the Zika and MERS viruses confound modern-day medicine, so too did cholera confound 19th-century medicine. Under the 2,000-year-old spell of miasmatism—the medical theory that diseases spread through stinky airs, or miasmas—doctors couldn’t bring themselves to admit that cholera spread through water, despite convincing contemporary evidence that it did.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing that could have been done to mitigate the cholera pandemics of the 19th century.

The Manhattan Company knew the water they distributed was dirty. As a former director of the company admitted in 1810, Manhattan Company water was rich with its users’ “own evacuations, as well as that of their Horses, Cows, Dogs, Cats, and other putrid liquids so plentifully dispensed.” New Yorkers decried its smell and taste, which they variously derided as “abominable” and “nauseating.”1 They suspected, too, that the company’s water made them sick. “I have no doubt,” one letter writer opined to a local paper in 1830, “that one cause of the numerous stomach affections so common in this city is the impure, I may say poisonous nature of the pernicious Manhattan water which thousands of us daily and constantly use.”2

And New York’s physicians knew that cholera was coming down the Erie Canal and the Hudson River, heading straight for the city. Dr Lewis Beck, who collected the data mapped above admitted that the pattern of disease did “favor the idea that cholera is contagious,”3 and travelling down the waterways into New York City. So many people feared the migrants coming down the waterways during cholera outbreaks that residents of towns lining the canal refused to let passengers on passing boats disembark. In 1893, in fear of a cholera outbreak, an armed mob surrounded the cholera-infected passengers of the Normannia, a vessel recently arrived from Hamburg, Germany, trapping hundreds aboard for days.

But despite the public’s fears of contagion and contaminated water, little was done to protect the city from either. The city’s leadership refused to enact quarantines along the canal or the Hudson for fear of disrupting the lucrative shipping trade that had transformed New York from a backwater to the Empire State. The Manhattan Company retained its charter, despite public outcry about the quality of their water. The political machinations of the infamous Aaron Burr, pursuing his murderous rivalry with the now-storied founding father Alexander Hamilton, assured that.

Instead, each wave of deadly contagion was met with minor adjustments to society’s defenses against pathogens. International conferences began in 1851 to organize cross-border quarantines against cholera and other diseases. New York City opened its first independent health department, staffed by physicians rather than political appointees, in 1865, as cholera loomed (thanks in large part to the efforts of the New York Academy of Medicine). These reactive, incremental measures couldn’t stave off nearly a century of deadly cholera pandemics, but as the decades passed, they formed the foundation for the global health system we enjoy today. Following New York City’s example, independent health departments were built across the country. The international conferences to tame cholera led to the formation of the World Health Organization, in 1946.

Today, we continue to fight contagions in a similarly reactive, incremental fashion. After Ebola infected tens of thousands in West Africa and elsewhere, hospitals in the United States and other countries beefed up their investments in infection control. After mosquito-borne Zika infected millions across the Americas, public health agencies focused anew on the problem of disease-carrying insects.

Whether these measures will be sufficient to defuse the next pandemic remains to be seen. But a more comprehensive, proactive approach to defanging pandemics is now possible, too. The history of pandemics reveals the role of human activity in the emergence and spread of new pathogens. Industrial developments that disrupt wildlife habitat; rapid, ad hoc urbanization; intensive livestock farming; sanitary crises; and accelerated trade and travel all play a critical role, just as they did in cholera’s heyday. In some places, we can diminish the pathogenic threat these activities pose. In others, we can step up surveillance for new pathogens, using new microbial sleuthing techniques. And when we find the next pandemic-worthy pathogen, we can work to contain it—before it starts to spread.

References

1. Pandemic, p 64. From Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: A history. Princeton University Press, 2001, 121, 141.

2. Pandemic, p 63. from Blake, Nelson Manfred. Water for the cities: A history of the urban water supply problem in the United States. No. 3. Syracuse University Press, 1995, 126.

3. Pandemic, p 106. from Tuite, Ashleigh R., Christina H. Chan, and David N. Fisman. “Cholera, canals, and contagion: Rediscovering Dr Beck’s report.” Journal of public health policy 32.3 (2011): 320-333.