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5 Worst Epidemics Brought to America from Overseas

slavery2tradeimageSo, do you think that a potential Ebola from Africa is pandemic is troubling? The majority of infectious diseases are of European origin, and were spread to other areas by explorers. Tens of millions of people, who had no natural immunity, were killed, and entire civilizations were made extinct.

Several infectious diseases have inflicted a great of damage to America throughout the centuries. These plagues have decimated whole populations, ended blood lines, claimed higher casualties than wars and played critical roles in charting the course of history.

As humans from different parts of the world expanded their territory, they came into closer contact with microbes they might otherwise have never encountered, and just as we continue to grow, microbes continue to evolve.

Today, we created a list of some of the most devastating epidemics that were brought to America from other continents:

  1. Smallpox

Before European explorers, conquerors and colonists began to flood into the New World in the early 1500s, the Americas were home to an estimated 100 million native people.

While these people, such as the Incas and the Aztecs, had built cities, they hadn’t resided in them long enough to breed the kind of diseases Europeans had, nor had they domesticated as many animals. When the Europeans arrived to the Americas, they brought with them a host of diseases for which the native peoples had no defense or immunity.


Among these diseases was smallpox, caused by the variola virus. These microbes began affecting humans thousands of years ago, with the most common form of the disease boasting a 30 percent mortality rate

The disease predominantly spreads through direct contact with an infected person’s skin or bodily fluids, but can also be spread through the air in close, confined environments.

  1. Malaria

Malaria isn’t new to the world of epidemic diseases. Records of its impact on human populations date back more than 4,000 years, when Greek writers noted its ravaging effects. Accounts of the mosquito-born illness pop up in ancient Indian and Chinese medical texts. Even then, scientists made the vital connections between the illness and the still waters where mosquitoes breed.

Malaria is caused by four species of Plasmodium microbes common to two species: mosquitoes and humans. When infected mosquitoes feed on human blood, they pass on the microbes. Once in the blood, the microbes grow inside red blood cells, destroying them in the process. Symptoms vary from mild to deadly, but typically include fever, chills, sweating, headache, and muscle pains.

Specific figures relating to ancient malaria epidemics are difficult to come by. The past effects of the disease can best be seen in examining large-scale human undertakings in malaria-infested areas. In 1906, the United States employed more than 26,000 workers to construct the Panama Canal. Organizers hospitalized more than 21,000 of these men for malaria.

Today, malaria continues to pose a problem in much of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, an area that was excluded from the WHO eradication campaign. Each year, between 350 and 500 million cases of malaria occur in the region . Of those cases, more than a million result in death. Even in the United States, more than a thousand cases and a handful of deaths occur each year, despite previous claims of eradication.

  1. Cholera

The people of India had lived with the dangers of cholera since ancient times, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the rest of the world experienced this disease. During this period, traders inadvertently exported the deadly virus back to cities in China, Japan, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Six cholera pandemics followed, killing millions.

Cholera is caused by an intestinal bacterium called Vibrio cholerae. Infections are frequently mild. Five percent of those who contract it experience severe vomiting, diarrhea and leg cramps — leading to rapid dehydration and shock. Most immune systems can easily defeat cholera, but only if the patient remains hydrated long enough to live through it. Humans can contract the bacterium through close physical contact, but cholera mainly spreads though contaminated water and food.

Traders introduced cholera to the cramped and squalid conditions of Europe’s major cities during the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Doctors pushed for cleaner living conditions and more sanitary sewage systems, thinking “bad air” caused the epidemic. This helped matters, and when the connection was finally made to contaminated drinking water, cases greatly decreased.

For decades, it seemed cholera was a thing of the past — just a disease of the 18th century bested by improvements in sanitation and medical science. Nevertheless, a new strain of cholera emerged in 1961 in Indonesia, and it eventually spread to much of the world. The ensuing pandemic continues to this day. In 1991, cholera sickened an estimated 300,000 people and killed 4,000 within the year.

  1. AIDS

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The virus spreads through contact with blood, semen and other bodily fluids, and it damages the human immune system. The damaged immune system opens the body up to infections, called opportunistic infections (OIs), that otherwise wouldn’t pose a problem. HIV becomes AIDS if the immune system breaks down severely enough.

Scientists believe HIV made the jump from certain species of monkey and ape to humans sometime in the mid-20th century. During the 1970s, Africa’s population grew, and war, poverty and unemployment plagued urban areas. Prostitution and intravenous drug abuse rose out of the chaos, with HIV spreading easily via unprotected sex and the reuse of contaminated needles. Even in hospitals, the reuse of needles and the contaminated blood transfusions contributed to the epidemic. Since then, AIDS has moved through sub-Saharan Africa, orphaning millions of children and depleting the work force in many of the world’s poorest developing nations.

Currently, there’s no cure for AIDS, though certain drugs can keep HIV from developing into AIDS. Additional medications can help combat OIs. Various organizations have waged an AIDS campaign of treatment, education and prevention. As mentioned earlier, HIV is often transmitted through sexual intercourse and the use of shared needles. Doctors continue to push for the use of condoms and disposable needles.

  1. Yellow Fever

yellowfeverWhen Europeans began importing African slaves to the Americas, they also brought over a number of new diseases, including yellow fever. This illness, also known as “yellow jack,” ripped through the colonies, decimating farms and even major cities.

When French emperor Napoleon sent an army of 33,000 to French landholdings in North America, yellow fever killed 29,000 of those soldiers. Napoleon was so shocked by the number of casualties that he decided the territory wasn’t worth the risk of further losses. France sold the land to the United States in 1803; an event which would go down in history as the Louisiana Purchase.

Yellow fever, like malaria, spreads from person to person through feeding mosquitoes. Typical symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle ache, backache and vomiting. Severity of symptoms ranges from mild to deadly, as severe infections can lead to bleeding, shock and kidney and liver failure. Liver failure causes jaundice or the yellowing of skin, which gives the illness its name.

Despite vaccination, improved treatment procedures and better mosquito management, epidemics of the illness persist to this day in South America and Africa.

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Ivan Rodriguez

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