false anthrax scare in northern Virginia last month
got us thinking about how the Commonwealth has
confronted its epidemics over the ages.
is a disease as old as civilization. Some scholars
believe the “burning plague” in Homer’s Iliad
was anthrax, and the Latin poet Virgil, born in 70
B.C.E., described the disease in detail in his Georgics.
But in Virginia, Bacillus anthracis has been
less common than smallpox, yellow fever, influenza
and polio in decimating populations.
the first Virginians to succumb to the ravages of
infectious disease were the settlers at Jamestown.
Mosquito-borne yellow fever and malaria took its
toll on the colony’s first generation. Eighty
percent of the 6,000 settlers sent to Jamestown
between 1607 and 1625 died from disease, starvation,
Indian attack or other causes.
however, was probably the most feared disease in
Virginia’s colonial period. There were outbreaks
from 1679-1680 and 1696. By the start of the
American Revolution, the disease was so prevalent
that General Washington described it in 1777 as
“more to dread … than the Sword of the Enemy,”
according to researchers
at Mt. Vernon.
in addition to his status as patriarch of our
country, may be considered the father of public
health in the new nation, the Mt. Vernon historians
write. He believed in the controversial practice of
inoculation that was brought back to Europe from
India by a diplomat’s wife in 1718. A bit of
matter from a smallpox pustule was removed and
placed under the skin of individuals who never had
it. They suffered from a mild version of the disease
and recovered. Such individuals were then immune to
smallpox the rest of their lives. Many colonies,
though, thought inoculation would spread the disease
and declared the practice illegal. Virginia banned
inoculation in 1749.
the American Revolution broke out, it was reported
the British may have practiced the first instance of
biological warfare in the new nation. In the fall of
1775, during a smallpox epidemic in Boston, then
occupied by the British, there were reports the
redcoats sent ill citizens out to the American lines
to infect Washington’s troops. While Washington
believed in inoculation, he at first prohibited it,
fearing the loss of sick troops during battle. He
eventually developed a system to inoculate new
recruits, so they contracted the mild form of the
disease, but were well enough to fight by the time
they had received uniforms and weapons.
spread of epidemic diseases in Virginia and the rest
of the nation was closely related to social,
economic and geographical conditions, reports The
Reader’s Companion to American History. The
isolation of early American colonies in the 17th
century actually may have contributed to a healthier
population than in the Old World. While
Jamestown’s location on low, mosquito-ridden land
was a breeding ground for disease, some studies have
found that males in the early New England colonies
lived into their 70s and 80s, while those left
behind in Great Britain had a life span of only 35.
(See the Readers
Companion to American History.)
the late 1700s and early 1800s, epidemics became
less isolated, spreading across communities and up
and down the East Coast because of river and coastal
commerce. In 1793, an influenza epidemic killed 500
people in five counties over a four-week period in
Virginia. As cities grew in the 19th
century, waterborne and airborne diseases such as
cholera and diphtheria appeared. The life expectancy
gap between Americans and Europeans closed. Virginia
didn’t escape the national and worldwide epidemics
of cholera in 1848 and 1865.
the early 20th century, globalization had
already begun and Virginians were among the victims
during the worldwide influenza pandemic from
1918–1919 that took 400,000 American lives.
discovery of sulfa drugs, penicillin and antibiotics
in the 1930s and 40s helped curb many infectious
diseases, but Virginia still would have to deal with
the polio scare of the 1950s. The town of
Wytheville’s polio epidemic made national news.
Motorists would roll up their windows as they drove
through on old Route 11 between Roanoke and Bristol
in the hot summer of 1950. (This was before
air-conditioned cars.) Families who had lost
children to the disease often left the city to avoid
infecting their neighbors.
Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin’s discovery of the
polio vaccine stopped the epidemic in its tracks.
enough, it was the success at combating infectious
epidemics that led in part to the next scourge –
AIDs in the 1980s. Public health departments were
not well funded or staffed because it was thought we
had conquered epidemic diseases. While death rates
from AIDs began declining in the late 1990s due to
more effective treatment, more than 8,300 Virginians
had died of the disease by the end of 2003,
according to statistics from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
will be Virginia’s next epidemic? Hard to know,
except that its origins will probably be more exotic
than the mosquitoes on Jamestown Island.
Virginia’s Blue Yonder
April 11, 2005