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Until such bold adventurers as Verrazano and Hudson penetrated its unpolluted waters, North America enjoyed extraordinary freedom from epidemics. In pre-Columbian times there had been no plague (Black Death), cholera, yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, diphtheria or even measles.

The pioneer immigrants brought their foul European diseases with them. Aboard their ships, filthy water and human and animal wastes sloshed around in the bilges for a month or more. Men and women who were healthy when they left Europe were sick when they landed —not only from malnutrition but also from infections picked up at sea. Some, such as smallpox, malaria and measles, proved effective biological-warfare weapons, ravaging the Indians, who had no immunity against them. But most of the disease-causing microbes of the Old World took readily to the fertile soil of the New World, and so did the insects and vermin that carry them. The result: for fully three centuries, North America was scourged by deadly epidemics.

By 1674, John Josselyn wrote of the Massachusetts settlements: “The Diseases that the English are afflicted with, are the same that they have in England, with some proper to New-England, griping of the belly (accompanied with Feaver and Ague) which turns to the bloudy-flux, a common disease in the Countrey, which together with the small pox hath carried away abundance of their children.” This same Josselyn attributed to the Indians “the great pox” (syphilis), consumption of the lungs, the King’s Evil (scrofula) and falling sickness—all of which happened to be imports from the Old World.

The U.S. enjoyed miraculously long immunity from the dreaded plague that used to sweep Europe. It was not until June 27, 1899, that the S.S. Nippon Maru reached San Francisco, carrying, among other things, eleven Japanese stowaways. Two were found drowned, and infected by the plague. Early in 1900 a Chinese immigrant, found dead, was also shown to have had plague. The resulting political furor was reminiscent of the Middle Ages, with the Governor of California insisting that there was no problem and federal authorities demanding stern measures for quarantine, isolation, disinfection and rat extermination. It took almost ten years of squabbling and litigation before all plague-carrying rats were destroyed and the disease suppressed. The last U.S. epidemic of classic bubonic plague struck Los Angeles in 1924, causing 30 deaths. But the wild rodents of the Western states also carry fleas that in turn carry plague bacilli. In 1975 there were 20 reported cases of this “sylvatic” plague.

The most savage of all epidemics in the world since the Black Death, and by far the most lethal in the history of the Americas, was the 1918-19 worldwide pandemic of influenza. Often called the Spanish flu because some of the earliest cases reported were in Spain, it actually erupted simultaneously in places as far apart as southern Russia and Greenland. Soldiers on the battle front suddenly keeled over. Policemen donned masks to direct traffic, and small children were similarly covered in their carriages.

Although the virus’ incubation period is about two days, there were reports, still unexplained, of outbreaks beginning aboard ships that had been at sea for three weeks or more. Four years of war had left much of the world ripe for all sorts of epidemics, and many varieties of pneumonia-causing bacteria were pullulating. So was Pfeiffer’s bacillus, which had been mistakenly identified in 1892-93 as the cause of influenza and therefore named Hemophilus influenzae. There is no doubt that among the millions who fell prey to the virus, many were simultaneously attacked by this and other bacteria.

In all other epidemics, the greatest mortality has been among the aged and very young. In 1918-19, a far greater proportion of the dead were men and women in their prime, aged 20 to 45. No one knows why. Nor does anyone know the world death toll: after every activity of organized society—even prosecution of the war—had been disrupted, the U.S. counted 548,000 dead. The world total was some 20 million.

Then, as mysteriously as it had appeared, this strain of virus disappeared, or at least went underground. Apparently, perhaps with some minor mutation, it found its refuge among hogs —hence the appellation of “swine flu” given to the recent emergence of a similar flu strain at Fort Dix, N.J.

The U.S.’s most conspicuous contribution to the fight against epidemics involves poliomyelitis. There were minor outbreaks of infantile paralysis in Scandinavia in the 1880s, but in 1894 the first true epidemic occurred in Vermont’s Otter Creek Valley, with no fewer than 132 cases recorded.

Polio is a disease of highly sanitized communities. For thousands of years, the majority of children playing in dirty streets picked up the virus and developed their own antibodies. As Americans became more and more concerned about child hygiene, whole generations matured with no immunity. The numbers of reported cases rose, until in 1952 there were 57,879 confirmed cases and 3,145 deaths. Parents suffered perennial panics.

But with the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines, the epidemics and panics ended almost overnight. In 1975 there were only eight proven cases of polio in the U.S., and only one death. The most distinctively American of all epidemics has been conquered.

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