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A Look Back: Past Pandemics in U.S. History

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Among the most frightening of all natural disasters are pandemics. A pandemic is an outbreak of disease among large portions of a population in a country or worldwide. COVID-19 is by no means the first pandemic the U.S. has experienced in its history. Pandemics and epidemics have devastated the country for more than 200 years.

Early America

Smallpox outbreaks were among the first and most deadly pandemics in America. During the early 17th century, Europeans carrying the virus infected Native Americans who lacked immunity. Historian Bruce Cumings wrote that the virus was like “a Grim Reaper moving inexorably through the continent.” Over two years, 90 percent of the Indians along the Massachusetts coast died as a result of smallpox. Huron Indians lost two-thirds of their population during the 1640s.

In 1793, yellow fever surfaced near the Delaware River waterfront, eventually reaching the city of Philadelphia. At the time, the city was serving as the nation’s capital. An estimated 5,000 people died from August to November (10 percent of the city’s population). Among those who contracted it were Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Rush. George Washington managed to flee the city before contracting it. Even today, seaports are often hot spots for infectious outbreaks.

Cholera Ravages Cities

Deadly cholera outbreaks occurred in America in 1832, 1849 and 1866. The bacterial disease is contracted by drinking water contaminated by human waste. From 1849 to 1851, 4,557 lives were lost in St. Louis, 5,969 in Cincinnati and 700 in Detroit. In each instance, death tolls numbered between 5 and 10 percent of the population. The disease took the life of President James K. Polk in June 1849, three months after his term ended. In 1866, the cholera outbreak in New York City claimed the lives of 1,137 individuals.

Influenza During and After WWI

Drs. Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens called it “the mother of all pandemics.” Following the First World War, the deadliest pandemic struck not only America but much of the world. American soldiers living in close proximately in Europe and on the home front were the first to contract it in large numbers. The combination of influenza and pneumonia killed more American servicemen than enemy weapons did.

Sometimes called the Spanish flu, influenza soon spread among the civilian population. It took the lives of 50 million individuals worldwide. A third of the world’s population is estimated to have been infected by it. Some 675,000 people died in the U.S. Nearly half of the deaths were among young adults (20 to 40 years old). My great grandfather recalled lying in a hospital bed and watching his best friend die from it.

The Polio Scare

Polio was once a scourge in America. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled by it during his presidency. An intestinal infection spread by contact with human waste, polio affects the nervous system, causing temporary or permeant paralysis. It is more prevalent among children and peaks during the summer months. During the 1940s and 1950s, outbreaks occurred in the U.S., seemingly traveling from one city to the next. Whole towns were quarantined. The highest number of cases occurred in 1952, reaching 58,000.

AIDS in the 80s

AIDS was first documented in the U.S. in June 1981. It took the life of the popular actor Rock Hudson in 1985. Cases rapidly increased into the 1990s. The highest death rate in the U.S. — 50,877 — occurred in 1995. Once regarded as exclusively a sexually transmitted disease, the AIDS virus has been spread by needles and from a mother to a newborn. There is no cure for AIDS, and it is among the longest-running pandemics in history.

We Will Endure

We will overcome this COVID-19 pandemic. Just look to the past. For over 200 years, Americans have adapted to and overcome each pandemic or epidemic they faced, regardless of how lethal.

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