Epidemics and disease

Humanity has been plagued with epidemics and disease throughout history. Some of these we have overcome with science and vaccinations, while others remain dangerous to the point of potential annihilation of many populations.

For those living in Europe and the colonies during the 1600s-1800s, disease was a common cause of death. The epidemics that swept part of the world reduced the population with the deaths of large percentages of people.

Diseases of the past that have been overcome have included smallpox, typhoid, yellow fever, measles, polio, and cholera.

However, those living in the European countries that were sending people over to the colonies brought these diseases with them. Upon arrival, these same diseases killed as much as 20-80% of the Native populations, who had no defense against them.

The most notable epidemic that was seen throughout Europe in the Middle Ages was Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death.

Of all of the diseases brought to the colonies by the settlers/immigrants, smallpox was the one that infected most people.

Victims of this disease were very young and old, and the mortality rate was high. The problem with smallpox is that the virus could survive for years on items that it was exposed to.

People with underlying medical conditions or poor nutrition were more susceptible to death when they were diagnosed with smallpox.

When the same disease appears year after year, it is often then referred to as an epidemic. Both dysentery and Malaria were considered to be epidemics. Malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes to humans and had horrible and painful symptoms that often led to death.

Malaria was so common that the outbreaks were sometimes not even listed. Delaware, New York, and New Jersey were more prone to outbreaks of Malaria. Those people that did survive were often too weak to fight off other diseases.

Dysentery was called “camp fever” or “camp disorder,” and was easily spread on immigrant ships and camps with soldiers. It is caused by either parasitic worms, bacteria, or protozoa that exist in feces-contaminated food and water, as well as flies.

Unsanitary handling of food contributed to the many cases of dysentery. The condition causes dehydration due to diarrhea, and children are the most susceptible. During colonial times, they were unaware of the requirement of cleanliness around food.

Yellow fever was another repeated epidemic that was caused by transmission through mosquitoes. Other names for it included “Black Vomit” and “Bilious Plague,” and the symptoms were horrible and led to death.

The highest percentages of yellow fever were found where standing water allowed the mosquitoes to populate. Unlike Malaria that everyone was susceptible to, white people were more susceptible to Yellow Fever than black people. Most Yellow Fever outbreaks happened in more tropical areas such as the West Indies and Bahamas.

Scarlet fever and diphtheria were the causes of death for children under the age of five. Symptoms for both were so similar that they could often not tell the difference. Families sometimes lost over half of their children due to diphtheria that was transmitted from one to another by a single droplet of infection.

Scarlet fever was also transmitted by contact with a bacteria, and this led to symptoms that included a scarlet or red rash. Also known as the “frontier disease” because it didn’t begin in the cities. Most of the victims of scarlet fever were young children.


What is the definition of an epidemic?
When the same disease appears year after year

What is another name for the Bubonic Plague?
Black Death

What were two of the diseases that afflicted Europe and the colonies in the 1600s to 1800s?
smallpox, typhoid, yellow fever, measles, polio, or cholera

What age group did Malaria and scarlet fever kill most?
young children

Where did Yellow Fever outbreaks occur?
mostly tropical areas

What were the two other names for dysentery?
“camp fever” or “camp disorder”