Learning from historic pandemics

by Shirley Williams
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The world is currently being ravaged by a pandemic. While our world has been turned upside down it is not the first pandemic that has ever occurred. In fact, before vaccinations were a thing plagues and pandemics were commonplace. Is there anything we can learn from pandemics of previous years?

It is well known that our best chances to defeat the current pandemic is a vaccine. While countries are busy working on developing this solution it will likely be a long time before they are finalized and ready for public use. In the meantime, we have been advised to focus on our hygiene (by washing our hands) and practicing social distance. This advice is what caused most other pandemics to be solved in years gone by. 

The word quarantine itself actually comes from the Black Death. When the disease started to reach Italy it came through busy port cities. The inhabitants of Ragusa had heard that isolation was an effective way to stop the disease from spreading so when any sailors came to the port they were forced to stay on their ships for 30 days. This became known as trentino. After a while, the city leaders thought that they needed to be even stricter so the increased the quarantine by an additional ten days. This became known as quarantino as they were being isolated for 40 days. 

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While we sometimes think the measures we are taking today are too strict as people aren’t allowed to exercise close together or people are being made to wear masks. It is nothing compared to the rules that had to be followed many years ago. When someone in a house was found to have the plague a red cross was painted on their door so that people knew to stay away from them. Similarly, if someone walked down the street with a white pole it meant that someone in that household had the plague as well. Today we aren’t quite as strict and we trust our populace to isolate themselves if they are feeling ill. Perhaps we should try some of these older methods too?

Back then it was incredibly difficult to wipe out plagues completely as a vaccine was never created. People became used to spikes in plague deaths and it was treated as normal. The worst disease that ever spread throughout the world was smallpox.

Smallpox was a disease that was rampant in Europe. It killed many people and it appeared there was no cure. For most Europeans at the time fever, head pains, and blistering became common and accepted. Yet when Europeans traveled to the Americas for the first time, they brought the disease as well. The indigenous people were not ready for the disease. It raged throughout the continent and killed around 10 million people in total. There has been nothing in human history that has come close to killing the number of people that this act did. It was an Englishman who finally solved smallpox, by chance.

He noticed that milkmaids who spend their day squeezing the udders of cows were immune to the disease. The reason was that they were already sick. The milkmaids often had a disease now known as cowpox and it was found that if you had this mild condition you could not contract smallpox. This was in many ways an early version of a vaccine. By 1980 smallpox had been removed from the world.

While at times we feel that our country leaders are not doing enough to combat the pandemic, and some aren’t, the truth is that we have more tools available to us today than we ever had before. We will need to wait for the vaccine to be produced before we can completely eradicate this pandemic but we can return to some form of normality if we are vigilant and follow careful guidance. For now, stay safe, look after those who need help, and at all opportunities practice social distancing.

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