History of yellow fever

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Photograph taken during the 1965 Aedes aegypti eradication program in Miami, Florida

The evolutionary origins of yellow fever most likely lie in Africa.[1][2] Phylogenetic analyses indicate that the virus originated from East or Central Africa, with transmission between primates and humans, and spread from there to West Africa.[3] The virus as well as the vector Aedes aegypti, a mosquito species, were probably brought to the western hemisphere and the Americas by slave trade ships from Africa after the first European exploration in 1492.[4]

The first probable outbreak of the disease in the western hemisphere was recorded by Spanish colonists in 1648 in Yucatan, Mexico, where the illness was termed xekik (black vomit) by the Maya. At least 25 major outbreaks followed in North America, such as in Philadelphia 1793, where several thousand people died, more than nine percent of the total population. The American government, including George Washington, had to flee the city, which was the temporary capital for a decade.[5] In 1878, about 20,000 people died in an epidemic in towns of the Mississippi River Valley and its tributaries. The last major outbreak in the US occurred in 1905 in New Orleans. Major outbreaks also occurred in Europe in the nineteenth century in Atlantic ports, e.g. in 1821 in Barcelona with several thousand victims.[6]

Philadelphia: 1793[edit]

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 struck during the summer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the highest fatalities in the United States were recorded. The disease probably was brought by refugees and mosquitoes on ships from Saint-Domingue. It rapidly spread in the port city, in the crowded blocks along the Delaware River. About 5000 people died, ten percent of the population of 50,000. The city was then the national capital, and the national government left the city, including President George Washington. Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York suffered repeated epidemics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as did other cities along the East and Gulf coasts.[7]

Haiti: 1802[edit]

In 1802–1803, an army of forty thousand sent by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte of France to Saint Domingue to suppress the revolution mounted by slaves, was decimated by an epidemic of yellow fever (among the casualties was the expedition's commander and Bonaparte's brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc). Some historians believe Napoleon intended to use the island as a staging point for an invasion of the United States through Louisiana (then newly regained by the French from the Spanish.).[8][9] Others believe that he was most intent on regaining control of the lucrative sugar production and trade in Saint-Domingue. Only one-third of the French troops survived to return to France, and in 1804 the new republic of Haiti declared its independence.

New Orleans, Louisiana: 1833 and 1853[edit]

The 1853 outbreak claimed 7,849 residents of New Orleans. The press and the medical profession did not alert citizens of the outbreak until the middle of July, after more than one thousand people had already died. The New Orleans business community feared that word of an epidemic would cause a quarantine to be placed on the city, and their trade would suffer. In such epidemics, steamboats frequently carried passengers and the disease upriver from New Orleans to other cities along the Mississippi River.

The epidemic was dramatized and featured in the plot of the 1938 film Jezebel starring Bette Davis.

Norfolk, Virginia: 1855[edit]

A ship carrying persons infected with the virus arrived in Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia in June 1855.[10] The disease spread quickly through the community, eventually killing over 3,000 people, mostly residents of Norfolk and Portsmouth. The Howard Association, a benevolent organization, was formed to help coordinate assistance in the form of funds, supplies, and medical professionals and volunteers, who poured in from many other areas, particularly the Atlantic and Gulf Coast areas of the United States.

Lower Mississippi Valley: 1878[edit]

The entire Mississippi River Valley from St. Louis south was affected, and tens of thousands fled the stricken cities of New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Memphis. An estimated 120,000 cases of yellow fever resulted in some 20,000 deaths.[11]

Memphis suffered several epidemics during the 1870s, culminating in the 1878 epidemic (called the Saffron Scourge of 1878), with more than 5,000 fatalities in the city. Some contemporary accounts said that commercial interests had prevented the rapid reporting of the outbreak of the epidemic, increasing the total number of deaths. People still did not understand how the disease developed or was transmitted, and did not know how to prevent it.[12]

The 1878 epidemic was the worst that occurred in the state of Mississippi. Sometimes known as 'Yellow Jack,' and 'Bronze John,' devastated Mississippi socially and economically. Entire families were killed, while others fled their homes for the presumed safety of other parts of the state. Quarantine regulations, passed to prevent the spread of the disease, brought trade to a stop. Some local economies never recovered. Beechland, near Vicksburg, became a ghost town because of the epidemic. By the end of the year, 3,227 people had died from the disease. [13]

The French Panama Canal Effort: 1882–1889[edit]

The French effort to build a Panama Canal was damaged by the prevalence of endemic tropical diseases in the Isthmus. Although malaria was also a serious problem for the French canal builders, the numerous yellow fever fatalities and the fear they engendered made it difficult for the French company to retain sufficient technical staff to sustain the effort. Since the mode of transmission of the disease was unknown, the French response to the disease was limited to care of the sick. The French hospitals contained many pools of stagnant water, such as basins underneath potted plants, in which mosquitoes could breed. The eventual failure, as a result of the numerous deaths, of the French company licensed to build the canal resulted in a massive financial crisis in France.[14]


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  7. ^ Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) pp 49-50
  8. ^ Bruns, Roger (2000). Almost History: Close Calls, Plan B's, and Twists of Fate in American History. Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8579-3. 
  9. ^ Marr, J. S., & Cathey, J. T. (n.d.). The 1802 Saint-Domingue yellow fever epidemic and the Louisiana Purchase. Journal of public health management and practice : JPHMP, 19(1), 77–82. doi:10.1097/PHH.0b013e318252eea8
  10. ^ Mauer HB. "Mosquito control ends fatal plague of yellow fever". etext.lib.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2007-06-11.  (undated newspaper clipping).
  11. ^ Khaled J. Bloom, The Mississippi Valley's Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, Louisiana State U. Press, 1993
  12. ^ M.C. Crosby, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History (2006)
  13. ^ Deanne Stephens Nuwer, "The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic along the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Gulf South Historical Review 1999 14(2): 51–73
  14. ^ David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978 (a comprehensive history of the building of the canal).