From time immemorial, plagues and pestilence have been the subjects of myths and superstitions, and we as a society have forgotten that. The more privileged a society, the more remote such things seem. Pandemics have been recorded as history, myth, and even works of fiction that echo through the ages. There is, of course, the Great Plague of London in 1665-1666, one of the last major European outbreaks of bubonic plague that had ravaged the world since the fourteenth century. There are works of fiction that have become classics based upon the human horror of plague and disease, from Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, to Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’, Warner Brothers’ movie Contagion, and even AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ tap into the deepest fears of our species.
The 20th century say cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, and typhus cases drop dramatically, just as vaccines in the 20th century saved millions of children’s lives from diseases like polio, measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough. We forget that even in a modern society, comparatively wealthy, educated, and technologically advanced, that disease is not that far from our doors. We forget also that even in living memory no amount of slamming those doors shut has kept disease out. Here are just a few examples of pandemics in modern times.
- HIV: This ongoing pandemic was initially documented in 1981, with an estimated 50,000 new infections each year.
- Whooping Cough: Pertussis, one of the so-called “childhood diseases,” was nearly wiped out in the latter half of the last century with cases falling into the thousands instead of the hundreds of thousands reported each year from 1922. Numbers of cases are rising again due to the refusal of some parents to vaccinate their children. In 2010, ten infants died and over 9,000 people were infected in a California outbreak.
- Influenza: While most know about the 1918-1919 pandemic, there were other outbreaks during 1957-1958, 1968-1969, and 2009-2010. In the most recent outbreak, the CDC estimates that as many as 89 million Americans were infected and the death toll to be as high as 18,300.
- Measles: First reported in the 3rd century, measles was once reckoned as deadly as smallpox. In the years 1912-1916, 26 patients out of every 1,000 infected died. After an article was published in the British medical journal Lancet linking autism to the MMR vaccine, immunization rates dropped. Though the article was later determined to be fraudulent, immunizations dropped below the 92 percent needed to insure herd immunity, leading to the worse measles outbreak in 20 years with 600 Cases in California alone. Measles kills over 145,000 worldwide each year.
It is a myth that epidemics are a hallmark of poor countries with poor sanitary practices and lack of access to medical help. Epidemics happen right here, right now, in 21st century America. If the migration of exotic pathogens like Zika and Ebola virus are cause for panic, then the suffering they cause must be the call that tells our leaders that such outbreaks are not just a problem for the localities where they occur, but for everyone in all the world, and the world must answer with medical science and rationality.