The current Ebola crisis is by no means the first time a viral haemorrhagic fever (“VHF”) has terrorized the inhabitants of America. Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, epidemics of another VHF — yellow fever — spread fear and panic across the United States. N-YHS is fortunate to hold a number of rare reports of these early epidemics.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, VHF’s are a group of illnesses caused by several distinct families of viruses. Although Ebola belongs to a different family of viruses (Filoviridae) than yellow fever (Flavirviridae), the symptoms are similar: early fever, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea, followed by internal and external bleeding that all too often leads to death.
Perhaps as early as 1668, before it even had a name, a “fatal epidemic” of what most historians believe was yellow fever occurred right here in New York City. The first undisputed outbreak of yellow fever raged through Charleston and Philadelphia in 1699, prompting Pennsylvania to pass, the following year, the first quarantine law in the colonies. Thereafter, throughout the 18th century, there were frequent epidemics of yellow fever in America, including no less than 10 in New York City before 1800 (in 1702, 1743, 1745, 1751, 1762, 1791, 1793, 1795, and 1798).
Then as now, accurate information was hard to come by, and distorted by fear. No one knew what caused yellow fever, or how it was transmitted. One of the first to unravel some of the mysteries of the disease was a doctor working in Galveston, Texas — the state now charged with bungling the first American case of Ebola. When yellow fever broke out in 1839, Dr. Ashbel Smith treated the sick, published factual accounts of the progress of the disease in the Galveston newspaper, and afterwards wrote an Account of the Yellow Fever in Galveston in 1839, the first treatise on yellow fever in Texas. As disclosed in this report, Smith even “repeatedly tasted the black vomit, when fresh ejected from the stomachs of the living” to prove that yellow fever was not contagious. Although Smith, like Benjamin Rush before him, failed to recognize that mosquitoes were the carriers of the deadly virus (a fact that would not be discovered for nearly another century), his work is considered the first significant medical publication in Texas.
While considerably more is known about VHF’s than in Dr. Smith’s time, there is still no cure or established drug treatment, and until one is found the tradition of misinformation and fear is likely to continue.