AIDS running amok
Parallels to the AIDS epidemic?
As AIDS reaps yet more victims, we wonder if a look back at some earlier pandemics may help understand how disease outbreaks can change history.
1.) JUST JUSTICE Justinian's plague (540-590). Emperor Justinian was trying to rebuild the Roman Empire, with headquarters in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Then a plague stepped in, killing, some historians say, up to 100 million people. The plague is commonly assumed to have been bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but there's no proof.
The resulting power vacuum allowed Goths, Franks and other northern "barbarians" to divide the Roman Empire, ushering in the Dark Ages. However, the resulting labor shortage may have led to the elimination of slavery.
2.) BLACK DEATH, SILVER LINING
The Why Files talked to Samuel Cohn, a professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow, and author of The Black Death (see bibliography), who told us that the natural history of plague does not match what's known about black death.
Although Cohn is convinced that black death was not bubonic plague, we've also read reports that DNA from bubonic plague -- Yersinia pestis -- has been recovered from the teeth of victims of black death.
We'll let the experts duke that out and shift to a more pertinent question. What was the historic impact of so much dying? Was, as Cohn asserts, the black death a key to the Renaissance?
The first outbreak, in 1346, caused 'massive mortality," says Cohn, "and the doctors themselves say 'it's beyond our power, we can do nothing about it.' You got the burning of Jews, processions of [religious] flagellants in 1348."
But when a second wave of black death arrived a few decades later, the survivors' immune systems were primed to fight back, affecting both death rates and psychological responses. For more than a century, Jews were not thrown into wells as vengeance, Cohn says, and the medical profession also gained stature.
Observers, he says, quit "saying that doctors are fools. Instead, they start recommending their recipes [to avoid plague]." These recipes, contained in early books called "plague tracts," became "an explosion of a new form of popular literature" which helped spur publishing, a key industry of the early Renaissance.
Plague tracts "become a new form of literature about sanitary behavior, how you should wash your hands with hot water and blow your nose to prevent catching disease from someone else," says Cohn. "They talk about how priests should hear confessions from outside the window ... or come in with a sponge over the mouth."
While popular literature, wills, and writings of intellectuals all show "a new sense of optimism, hope and hubris," says Cohn, "the forerunner of this new sentiment is the plague doctors, who ... have this sense of conquest over nature. They are the first ones in Western civilization, I am convinced and have not been disproven, who say 'we have gone beyond the ancients in a secular branch of knowledge.'"
As plague lost some potency, Cohn continues, it became logical to question the sacrosanct "scientific" utterances of long-dead physicians like Galen. The reduced death toll, he stresses, 'was because of the human immune system, but they read it as their success. It built new a confidence of their ability to conquer nature."
A mistake, perhaps, but a beneficial one, Cohn concludes. "It's remarkable, and [historians] have not been able to deal with it successfully: the relationship of Europe's most monumental mortality, and following on its heels is the Renaissance."
3.) A BIG POX
The smallpox virus is sometimes called the deadliest human pathogen in history, but the Spaniards, had, through generations of exposure, gained immunity. They also were immune to measles, another virus that hitchhiked on their galleons.
The smallpox epidemic turned the world of the survivors upside down, says Neil Whitehead, a professor of anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied the aftermath of the epidemic. "It was a holocaust, deaths in the range of 80 percent to 90 percent within five years of arrival. It's hard to understand how that would not have changed everything."
Many, including William McNeill, author of the pioneering book Plagues and Peoples (see bibliography), think the Indians concluded that the Europeans were exempted from the epidemic due to a special status with the gods. That feeling, says McNeill, paved the way for the adoption of European religions, a key component in the colonists' toolkit for pacifying natives.
Whitehead, however, says the epidemic "left a deep suspicion of western ways, which were dangerous. It gave strength to military, aggressive postures, the feeling that it's a pretty tough world out there."
Over the long term, he says, the holocaust "has lead to this view of seeing the cosmos as very predatory, and not accepting that there is natural death. Even for people who now understand the transmission of smallpox, there is always a moral cause of disease. Why me? Why now? Why here? It's the enmity of others that causes disease."
On a geopolitical scale, he adds, the effects were drastic. While Africans, Europeans and Asians were more or less immune to the killers that devastated the Amerindians, native Americans were completely susceptible.
As a result, the Spanish, English, French and Portuguese had an easy time conquering the New World and colonizing it for hundreds of years. Elsewhere, the story was different, Whitehead says. "Colonization did not happen like this in Africa or Asia. They are still full of intractable people, the conquest was not as complete."
More on smallpox as a bioweapon.
Less to be learned?
So much has changed. In this era of fast transportation, infections can act on a global scale. HIV is an unusual pathogen which, as far as we know, produces no immunity and no cures. And it kills so slowly that infected people can move long distances, spreading disease as they go.
As a slow-acting killer transmitted by sexual contact (and exchanges of bodily fluids), AIDS can best be compared to syphilis. Yet that illness was never deadly enough to change demographic statistics.
In seeking to illuminate the future by looking at the past, we found one disturbing lesson. In terms of social, political and economic changes, tiny bugs play second fiddle to no historic force. (Meet the fungus that changed Irish history.)
Look at a map of the Americas, with all those names rooted European languages. The map illustrates most sobering message of all. A major pandemic can redraw the map of the world.
Get help in our AIDS bibliography.
©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.