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Severe epidemics are part of our history

News: Apr 06, 2020

On July 26, 1834, cholera arrived in Sweden. The first victim was carpenter Anders Rydberg from Masthugget in Gothenburg. In September, the disease reached Stockholm.
“Just like today, the need for quarantine had to be balanced against the necessity of letting trade and other activities continue", says Daniel Larsson, researcher in history.

Smallpox, dysentery and agues were recurring epidemics throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the most frightening epidemic was the plague, which struck time and time again in unpredictable ways.

"Everybody knows about the Black Death in the 14th century when around a third of Europe’s population died, Daniel Larsson explains. Perhaps less well known is the fact that the plague returned repeatedly over the following centuries with dreadful consequences. The last plague epidemic in Sweden, in 1710–1711, resulted in the death of around 100,000 people, a disaster, not least in light of the fact that the population was a mere 1.3 million".

The spread of infectious disease can be investigated by historians through parish registers and burial records. But it is not always possible to ascertain precisely what people died from.

"There are often notes referring to symptoms, such as someone having died of coughing or fever, but that does not tell you whether it was typhoid fever, tuberculosis or something else. Neither is it possible to ascertain how extensive the spread of contagion was. A burial record for example may state that 15 children died from smallpox, but it says nothing about how many of the infected people survived".

Smallpox was considered a children’s disease in the early modern period, Daniel Larsson tells us.

"The epidemics came in intervals of 5-6 years and practically everyone who had not already had the disease was infected, which primarily meant children. The world’s first vaccine, the smallpox vaccine, was developed at the end of the 18th century but the disease seems to have abated and become less aggressive even before that time".

Malaria was also present in Sweden and only disappeared in the 19th century when they started draining wetlands that were to be used for agriculture.

The extent of the disease

Instead another dreadful disease appeared. In the 19th century, close to 40,000 Swedes died of cholera, and the extent of the disease led to special cholera hospitals and cholera cemeteries being established.

"Cholera was new in Europe but had existed in the Ganges Delta for thousands of years, Daniel Larsson explains. The disease started spreading in connection with a general growth in trade as well as within the British Empire, and was soon found throughout the world. The doctors argued about the cause of the disease and two opposing camps were formed. Some believed that it was caused by small invisible pathogens and therefore recommended quarantine and barriers. Others argued that the disease was caused by dirt and poor hygiene, which seemed likely as it was mostly poor people in inferior housing that suffered. Just like today, it was about weighing different measures against each other: on the one hand reducing the spread of contagion, on the other keeping trade going in order for society to continue to operate".

At the end of the 19th century they discovered the germ, vibrio cholerae, that causes cholera.

"However, it is one thing to scientifically determine what causes a disease, and another to actually do something about it. Cholera continued to claim victims but also had some positive consequences, such as major investments in water and sewage systems, better housing and more scrupulous hygiene. So, the epidemic was one of several reasons behind Sweden's transformation into a healthier society".

Difficult to draw parallels

It is difficult to draw parallels between the current Covid-19 pandemic and epidemics of the past, as the mortality rate of the historic epidemics was infinitely higher, Daniel Larsson points out.

"But perhaps there are still two lessons to be learned. The first is the importance of objective and correct information. During the cholera epidemics, for example, the tabloid newspaper Aftonbladet was convicted of rumour mongering, which of course increased the level of anxiety in society. The second concerns the importance of having comprehensive and long-lasting protective structures in place in order to be as well prepared as possible for the fact that disasters can still happen. Perhaps as a form of civil defence against such viral epidemics as obviously test society severely even in our modern era".

Recommended reading: Daniel Larsson’s Kolera: samhället, idéerna och katastrofen 1834 (Cholera: the Society, the Ideas and the Catastrophe 1834)


Originally published on: medarbetarportalen.gu.se

Page Manager: Katarina Tullia von Sydow|Last update: 3/19/2010

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