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A lesson from history: How the yellow fever epidemic changed society

Original post made on May 6, 2020

Stanford University historian Kathryn Olivarius is seeing parallels between the 19th-century outbreaks of the deadly yellow fever in the South and the current coronavirus pandemic, with both shaping society and the economy.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, May 6, 2020, 8:30 AM

Comments (7)

4 people like this
Posted by Precautionary Measures
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2020 at 10:12 am

Professor Olivarius is overlooking & failed to include a historical public health measure that took place during the Louisiana Yellow Fever epidemic in the mid 1800s...those diagnosed with yellow fever were forcefully taken away by the wagon loads & quarantined at remote rural sites where most of the victims eventually died (since there was no cure/treatment at the the time).

This was the same practice used in Hawaii during the same time period in an effort to curtail the spread of leprosy.

While not advocating the practice, with the advent of modern medicine this measure could be used to isolate mass numbers of the afflicted from the general population by transferring them to remote hospitalized areas in the Nevada desert and/or the Death Valley/Barstow, Modoc County regions in California where they could receive proper medical treatment prior to being allowed to re-enter mainstream everyday life in the outside world.

Ideally, a government enforced quarantine would reduce the strain on our local hospital ERs and in turn, allow various businesses to reopen by proactively/effectively removing the mass majority of epidemic carriers & victims.

The ACLU would probably protest but we need to maintain both a balance between ensuring the public health + economic recovery.








9 people like this
Posted by Member
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 6, 2020 at 11:57 am

Coronavirus: Wow. Here is a proactive city. Hong Kong is giving free to every one of city’s some 7.3 million inhabitants a mask that can be washed and reused 60 times, with a replaceable electrostatic filter.
..... The masks use an award-winning technology Hong Kong’s textile industry has developed.
.... Costing about HK$40 (~ USD $5) each, they are being given away to the city’s 7.3 million inhabitants (Santa Clara County has about 2 million people, Palo Alto City has less than 70,000 residents).
.... “The masks are environmentally sustainable,” Sit said. “We heard from health experts that the threat of the coronavirus will not go away for some months, so Hong Kong people will need them.”
.... Yuen said the masks could be distributed next week and would come with replaceable filters. He said the city had battled the pandemic to a “truce”, but warned against complacency.

Web Link


10 people like this
Posted by Pat
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 6, 2020 at 12:51 pm

Re: "Precautionary Measures"

The suggestion to "remove... the mass majority of epidemic carriers & victims" to the desert is offensive not only to those members of our community who might be removed, but also to compassionate people who know and love those exiles and, not least of all, the families residing in the the regions where the victims would be dumped.

If you start throwing people overboard, it wont be long before it is just you and the rats alone on the ship.

However this goes we are all in it together.


Like this comment
Posted by LosAtos
a resident of Los Altos
on May 6, 2020 at 1:10 pm

As I remember, both Yellow Fever and Malaria were endemic to much of the Southeastern USA. The key to controlling it came when it was discovered that the major vector for transmitting both diseases was mosquitoes, and that it was essential to reduce mosquito populations in the affected areas. This was done, with considerable effort and expense, by enacting plans to change the terrain of susceptible areas to eliminate swamps, bogs, stagnant lakes, and low lying terrain that could support pools of stagnant water during the rainy seasons. These areas, like the Mississippi Delta and the low-lying areas of New Orleans for instance, were areas where poor people tended to live.


6 people like this
Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on May 6, 2020 at 2:02 pm

Thank you Kathryne Olivarius for your in-depth research on Yellow Fever and its impact on society concerning public health and the effects on the economy In Louisiana. I suggest the American Experience documentary on the 1918 Influenza pandemic on KQED. The pandemic killed over fifty million people worldwide. It was a H1N1 virus but like Covid-19 was highly contagious. Like Covid-19 it was a zoonotic virus. Many of us studied WWI and WWII but the 1918 Influenza was given little mention even at the university level. Thanks to Assistant Professor Olivarius we can learn from her important research. Fear fans prejudice and now Asians are feeling the xenophobic Mistral lit by the president of this country. Now he is dismantling the needed Covid-19 Task Force which he euphemistically refers to as "refocussing" the task force. Olivarius stresses that without trust in what our health professionals are telling us then we could see some people taking the law into their own hands. Thank you Palo Alto Weekly for publishing this important and timely article.


2 people like this
Posted by macbaldy
a resident of Midtown
on May 8, 2020 at 3:03 pm

To augment, not contradict "ALB"...H1N1 is a flu virus, COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which is larger and more complex than flu viruses. H1N1 was responsible for the 2009 Swine flu pandemic. H1N1 has been the prevalent cause for seasonal flu hospitializations during this waning flu season, although the current multivalent flu vaccine includes H1N1. The COVID coronavirus is much more contagious than seasonal flu. Other coronavirus strains are included in the virus ensemble causing the common cold, for which no vaccine has been found and for which immunity isn't known. COVID-19 is hard to accept on a temporary basis, imagine how different our future can be without a vaccine.


2 people like this
Posted by dianajill
a resident of Nixon School
on May 11, 2020 at 10:48 am

Unless I missed it, Ms. Olivarius failed to mention that unlike Covid-19, Yellow Fever cannot be spread directly from one person to another. If an infected mosquito bites a human, that human may become infected. If a non-infected mosquito bites an infected person, the mosquito become infected and can, in turn, bite an uninfected human and infect that person.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, observed that women who nursed infected family members often remained uninflected. That was because they were staying in the house and not being exposed to infected mosquitos. Rush did not learn where the infection came from; he realized it was prevalent around water, especially swampy areas. He thought there was some kind of “miasma” that carried the disease. It was actually because that’s where mosquitos lived and bred.

So we have two very different sources of contagion: the bite of an infected mosquito for yellow fever, or contact with an asymptomatic coronavirus victim. So the methods for quelling the source are very different.


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