Dead outnumbered the living on the Great Plains in the terrible winter of 1846-47 as white settlers began to spill across the West, for the first time exposing many Native Americans to dreadful diseases germinated in the cramped dwellings of the East.
I wouldn’t exist if my Mormon great-great-great grandfather hadn’t lost his wife to cholera that winter and married the woman who became my ancestor. In all, 325 Latter-day Saints died at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, of illnesses that could cut down a healthy person in a matter of 24 hours.
In terms of sheer magnitude, Indian deaths far outweighed whites. My family witnessed villages where corpses were stacked like cordwood outside tattered lodges, drifting snow only partially concealing agonizing scenes of tragedy.
Some people got sick and recovered; others somehow avoided it altogether through lucky happenstance, genes or partial immunity. Enough settlers survived so we can look back on western settlement with some complacency, our forgetfulness leading to a greater sense of inevitable triumph than is deserved. Imagine an alternative American history in which contact with Indians exposed us to new microbes instead of the other way around.
As it was, many tribes — including those here at the mouth of the Columbia River — were pounded into near extinction, blameless victims punished by biology for their long isolation from the larger human population in the Old World, which harbored deadly germs in its veins and animals and parasites.
The development of antibiotics and immunizations, coupled with better hygiene and public health care, radically altered our perception of disease. It’s no longer at all normal for children in developed countries to die of whooping cough, diarrhea or polio. No longer do people in the prime of life look over their shoulders in fear every time a family member comes down with an infection.
But for at least a quarter century, experts have warned our complacency is misplaced. For example, the late Seaview physician John Campiche often wrote of the danger of an impending second wave of infectious illness due to a combination of factors ranging from misuse of antibiotics to overpopulation.
It’s worth noting that in the years since Campiche’s death in 2005, misplaced worries about vaccinations have put a new generation at risk from measles and other easily preventable infections. Despite being one of the most brilliant physicians of his generation, Campiche didn’t foresee this. But he knew all too well that some battles don’t stay won.
Many scientists have long believed the next great killers will sweep out of east Asia, where vast numbers of people live in close proximity with pigs and poultry, prime reservoirs and incubators of microbes with the ability to jump to humans. The new novel coronavirus sweeping China is believed to have originated in wildlife butchered for human food — a practice believed to have also given rise to AIDS in Africa. It should be barred forever, for the sake of humanity and fast-disappearing wildlife.
Most new types of influenza first spring up in Asia, and scientists’ greatest fear has been emergence of a new quick-spreading flu germ like that which killed 20 million people worldwide in 1918-19, including 675,000 Americans. Even without a new super-flu, the plain vanilla varieties kill about 20,000 a year here today.
While few of us have direct experience of epidemic illness, we still dread it, and that’s why the mysterious outbreak of novel coronavirus is getting so much attention.
In all likelihood — like the somewhat similar outbreak of SARS in 2003 — coronavirus won’t become a big problem in the U.S., where health authorities are taking it very seriously and where our relatively low population density will impede its ability to spread from person to person. It’s important to remember no one has died here, although at last count five U.S. residents have brought corona back from China — including a resident of western Washington state.
It could, however, be a whole different matter in China and Southeast Asia, where conditions for transmission are ideal and where officials were slow to institute an effective quarantine before Chinese New Year vacations began. Up to 5 million people may have slipped out of the city at the outbreak’s epicenter before authorities clamped down. Such missteps have the potential to wreak horrible damage.
It is also already an economic disaster, with travel to Hong Kong and southern China grinding to a standstill, a grim reminder of the massive social disruptions that accompanied European plagues centuries ago. World stock markets took a comparatively big hit early this week, as investors grow concerned about disruptions to supply chains and other side effects of containment efforts.
While our health officials are acting with reassuring competence, it’s hard to feel secure that national leaders, preoccupied with impeachment and bitter partisanship, are similarly engaged. The fact is that infectious diseases, old and new, will surely kill many times more Americans than terrorism ever will.
We must give this fight against potential global pandemics the resources and attention it deserves.