Is Ebola the Modern-Day Yellow Fever? Medical Similarities and Differences

Early Philadelphia, Library of Congress

Early Philadelphia, Library of Congress

As of today, 4,493 people have died from Ebola, according to the World Health Organization. Two Dallas-area nurses, who treated a now-deceased infected patient who came to Texas from Liberia in West Africa, are hospitalized with the disease.

A similar number of casualties–as many as 5,000 people–died during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 in Philadelphia, which was the capital city of the United States at the time. The number is staggering, considering that the population in Philadelphia in the 1790 U.S. Census was 28,522, making it the second largest city in the United States.

What are the medical similarities and differences between Ebola today and yellow fever back then? Let’s put today’s Ebola outbreak into historical medical context.

Medical similarities and differences
A rare hemorrhagic fever, Ebola symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, muscle pain, severe headache, weakness, and abdominal pain. It features unexplained hemorrhage through bleeding and bruising.

Symptoms of yellow fever also include hemorrhage, such as blood oozing from the eyes, nose and mouth as well as black and red vomit. Skin and the whites of the eyes become yellow, which give the fever its name.

The major difference is how the diseases spread. Knowing how a disease spreads is critical for containing it, which distinguishes modern Ebola from yellow fever epidemics in the past.

Ebola spreads when someone comes into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has the disease. Hence, health care workers treating those infected are at the greatest risk and require protective gear when treating patients. Symptoms emerge between 2 to 21 days after Ebola exposure. Patients who survive develop immunity to the disease.

Unlike today, the problem with yellow fever 221 years ago was that people didn’t know how it spread. Fear of coming into contact with someone who had the disease was high. Residents of Philadelphia in 1793 didn’t know that yellow fever spreads through mosquitoes, not contact with those infected or their bodily fluids.

How did yellow fever become an epidemic back then? Several Caribbean Island refugees were infected with yellow fever when they arrived in Philadelphia by ship in 1793. Mosquitoes in Philadelphia bit the infected refugees and carried the disease to local residents through subsequent mosquito bites. The people of Charleston, South Carolina, experienced a similar outbreak of yellow fever in 1745. Baltimore and New Haven also later experienced outbreaks, but none compared to the 1793 epidemic in Philadelphia.

Discovering that mosquitoes carried yellow fever didn’t take place until 1881. Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor, made the discovery while U.S. Army Surgeon General Walter Reed confirmed it through experiments. This led to containing the disease by reducing mosquito populations. Max Theiler developed a vaccine for yellow fever in 1937 and later won a Nobel prize for it. Yellow fever exists today in South America and Africa in populations that lack access to the vaccination.

For more information:
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
World Health Organization

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of America’s Star-Spangled Story and American Phoenix and six other books.

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iPhone 6–John Quincy Adams needed one 200 years ago today

Among the many attractive features of the new iPhone 6 is its speed. Some have touted it as “insanely faster” than the iPhone 5.

Two hundred years ago today, on Oct. 7, 1814, John Quincy Adams could have used an iPhone or any phone for that matter, even one with a cord.

Adams was serving as one of five members of the U.S. team negotiating a peace treaty to end the War of 1812 between America and Britain. The negotiations with three British delegates had been taking place in Ghent, Belgium.

The bad news literally arrived in his bedchamber. A messenger–his brother-in-law George Boyd –burst into John Quincy’s Belgium hotel room early in the morning on October 7, 1814. Married to a younger sister of Louisa (John Quincy’s wife), Boyd was fresh off the boat, having traveled as a government agent across the Atlantic Ocean to deliver the urgent—but now six-weeks-old—news to the U.S. commissioners.

The British army and Marine Corps had burned the White House and U.S. Capitol on August 24, 1814.

“The newspapers contain a great variety of details respecting the fall of Washington and the destruction of buildings and of property, public and private, effected by the enemy,” Adams gravely wrote to Louisa.

The destruction of the White House and U.S. Capitol seemed to give the British negotiators the upper hand in the negotiations. What would happen next? Would the British sever the United States into two, with New England returning to British rule?

What Adams didn’t yet know on Oct. 7 is that a victory had already taken place that would return the advantage to the Americans in the negotiations. The people of Baltimore–more than 15,000–had already driven out the British military, who fled the East Coast after the Battle of Fort McHenry on Sept. 13-14.

Though communication was slow, once Adams and the others learned about the victory in Baltimore, they were able to propose a plan for the boundaries of the United States and Canada to return to where they were before the war began. News of that proposal would also take six weeks to reach America, but when it did, it would signal that peace was at hand and the war was over.

No doubt that John Quincy Adams would have loved and valued the speed of the iPhone and any other phone. A lover of science and a penchant for quips, he would have tweeted about the treaty, saying it was the “happiest day of his life.”

Excerpted in part from American PhoenixJane Hampton Cook’s book about John Quincy and Louisa Adams and the War of 1812. Discover more through Jane’s C-SPAN speech.

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