Runny nose? Sore throat? Wheezing? Painful joints? No — you are not going to die. It is just a winter flu. Probably. Bolstered by antibiotics, brandishing an inhaler and slurping chicken soup, you will likely live to fight another day.
Not so in the past. Then a sore throat could mean death by dinner time. Nearly every generation has had to deal with a widespread infectious disease that swiftly strikes down otherwise healthy individuals. Plagues kill a whole bunch of people. And they can take society and the economy down with them.
The notion that in this interconnected world we’re not likely to experience a massive epidemic is too good to be true. Maybe not this year. Maybe not in your lifetime. But it’s not a question of whether humanity will face another plague. We will. And then we will be faced with how to handle that plague when it comes. Will we respond with science, stoicism and compassion? Or will we just burn our neighbors as witches?
The answers to these questions likely come from the past. Here are some of the most gruesome plagues from my new book “Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them” and what we can learn from them.
There was no chance that the Antonine Plague — which is thought to have been smallpox — could be cured when it broke out in Rome in 165 AD. It could barely even be treated. The best the prominent physician Galen could do was provide notes on the symptoms that people who seemed likely to die showed and what symptoms those likely to recover showed. Thousands died each day — it’s thought at least 10 million perished.
While Emperor Marcus Aurelius advocated a calm rationalism in the face of disaster, the populace did . . . not. They embraced charlatans like Alexander of Abonoteichus who sold “magical” disease-repelling charms. Many Romans blamed the outbreak of the disease on Christians and proceeded to kill them. (The phrase “Throw the Christians to the lions!” is thought to have originated during this period) Meanwhile, Germanic tribes, recognizing the empire’s weakened state, began crossing the Roman border. Civilization hung by a thin thread.
But Marcus Aurelius, with his stoic disposition, held Rome together. He passed legislation subsidizing the cost of funerals to keep bodies from piling up in the streets. When the army was short on recruits, he conscripted gladiators. When the army could not pay the cost of new soldiers needed to replace the dead, he sold off his imperial possessions to finance the effort. He was able to see a problem, solve it, then see another problem and solve that one too without giving way to panic.
Marcus Aurelius’ successor, Commodus, didn’t do nearly as good a job when it came to fighting the plague in his midst. He spent most of his time committing incest with his sisters, trying to rename the calendar after himself and fighting harmless animals like ostriches in gladiatorial games. The Antonine Plague segued into the Cyprian Plague, which didn’t die off until around 270 (by which time the Roman emperor had been captured by the Persians). Alas, you can’t count on having someone like Marcus Aurelius in power forever.
In July 1518 in Strasbourg, a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street and could not stop. People speculated that she was doing this because her husband, who hated dancing, “had told her to do something she did not wish to do.”
Within a few days, 30 other townspeople followed her lead and began dancing. They danced until bones poked out of their feet and fought against any attempts to restrain them.
The miraculous part of this plague story is that the community came together to use compassion and kindness to help solve a problem.
There’s some debate regarding whether this frenzy might have been due to ergot poisoning, which causes muscle spasms and contortions in the afflicted. However, given the fact that every firsthand account describes the afflicted as dancing, not spasming, it seems mostly likely that it was an outbreak of mass hysteria. But remarkably — especially in an era where witch burnings were common — the town did not declare the dancers all demons. Instead they devoted their resources to trying to help them.
First, they hired professional musicians and staged dances, thinking that perhaps those afflicted just needed to dance it out. This was not effective. Then the town officials instituted directives against holding dances “for by doing so they take away the recovery of [the afflicted].” Finally, they decided to send the afflicted to the Shrine of St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancers (and one of the so-called Fourteen Holy Helpers — the saints who were supposed to offer special aid to Christians). Amazingly, most of the victims were cured. They simply stopped dancing. This isn’t the most magical part of this story, though. The miraculous part of this plague story is that the community came together to use compassion and kindness to help solve a problem and, in the course of doing so, saved many lives.
If you don’t allow for investigative journalism, people die. There’s no clearer time to witness this fact than during 1918 when the Spanish Flu broke out.
The Spanish Flu was no ordinary illness. While most flu viruses attack the elderly and the very young, the Spanish Flu produced a reaction called a cytokine storm that essentially turned healthy immune systems against themselves. The stronger the immune system response, the worse the illness, so the flu was deadliest to the healthiest in the prime of their lives. In under two years, it would kill somewhere between 20 million to 50 million people worldwide. But if you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry — that’s because journalists were afraid to report on it.
The plague broke out during WWI after a morale law had been put in place in 1917. The law dictated that journalists shouldn’t report anything negative about the US government that might demoralize the populace — for instance, that a disease was spreading through the populace that they had no idea how to combat. If you defied the law, you could go to jail for up to 20 years. The epidemic was called the Spanish Flu not because it originated there (it most likely came from Kansas) but because Spanish newspapers, who had no such laws, reported on it with great frequency as early as May 1918.
Back in the US, as late as September 1918 the El Paso Herald was still running articles like “Vicious Rumors of Influenza Epidemic Will Be Combatted.” This ignorance led to calamitous results in late September in Philadelphia when thousands gathered for a parade. A health expert named Dr. Howard Anders begged newspapers to warn against gathering in close proximity, but they refused. By early October, 117 Philadelphians had contracted the disease, prompting the Philadelphia Inquirer to write, “Worry is useless! Talk of cheerful things instead of the disease.” By Oct. 10, 759 people in Philadelphia had died. The disease would ultimately kill 675,000 Americans. It was never cured. It simply faded away as mysteriously as it broke out. Really, it would have been better if people had worried a little more.
In a 1952 national poll of Americans’ fears, polio ranked second, right after nuclear war. The disease was so terrifying because it mostly affected children, and, in many cases, left them paralyzed. The cost of caring for a stricken child could ruin families. There also was a social stigma against the disease, as some people believed, “The world has no place for a cripple.”
That was before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was hit by the disease at age 39 in 1921, became president in 1933. While FDR tried to maintain an appearance of vitality despite being largely confined to a wheelchair, he couldn’t hide the fact that he too had been paralyzed by the disease. Thousands of children with polio and members of their families wrote to him. One mother wrote, “Your life is, in a way, the answer to my prayers.” Soon, “Birthday Balls” were being held across the US on Roosevelt’s birthday, with all funds going to fight polio.
Roosevelt helped found the nonpartisan National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. Seven million Americans volunteered to help the organization, more than have volunteered for any cause that was not a war effort.
In 1947 the NFIP funded a lab for Jonas Salk, who would go on to create the polio vaccine in 1955. When Salk was asked who held the patent for his work, he replied, “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
If you want an example where everyone does everything wrong — basically the polar opposite of the handling of polio — then look back at the history of the AIDS virus.
AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome — first appeared in the US in 1980. In 1982, when the Reagan administration was asked about it, they ignored it.
Reagan himself didn’t discuss AIDS until 1985, by that time it had killed tens of thousands. That same year, he cut federal funding to combat the disease.
Meanwhile, communities who might have rallied to help fight the outbreak were told by religious leaders that the disease was God’s punishment for homosexuality. A California congressman said everyone with AIDS should be “wiped off the face of the earth.”
If the public had received better leadership and information would it have made a difference? It’s impossible to say. But the only reason this plague didn’t spread faster is due to groups of largely afflicted individuals like ACT UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who protested and fought relentlessly for their right to live. While their grass-roots efforts made a difference, AIDS continues to affect people around the globe, with around 40,000 Americans diagnosed each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.1 million people around the world died of AIDS-related causes in 2015.
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