History, epidemics and science

A snippet of history to honour the dedication of our epidemiologists and other scientists in these challenging times.

In 1854, a severe outbreak of cholera struck the Broad Street area of London, making thousands ill and killing at least 600 people. At the time, this dreadful disease was thought to be due to ‘bad air’.

Fortunately, a British physician called John Snow had been studying the disease and suspected the source was contaminated water from the raw sewage that seeped into the water system. By plotting cases on a map, Snow identified the Broad Street water pump as the likely source of the disease. He proved it by the simple expedient of removing the handle of the pump.

Cases of cholera immediately declined, although one can imagine how irate locals were about carting water from another pump further from their homes. Just as many people today grumble about hand-washing, wearing masks and social distancing.

Snow is celebrated as one of the founders of epidemiology, the scientific study of the patterns of disease with the population. His ‘germ theory’ of disease would take a while to be accepted, but it would eventually save millions of lives through improved sanitation and water treatment. Tragically, cholera is still shockingly rife in countries without these basics.

Fortunately, science has come a long way since then, thanks to the dedicated research of epidemiologists and other scientists, and 20th century developments in vaccines and antibiotics. Sadly, too late to stop the catastrophic 1918 Flu Pandemic, which infected about one-third of the world’s population and led to at least 50 million deaths.

It is mind-boggling to me that anyone could ignore the advice of the John Snow’s of our age, who dedicate their lives to understanding the nature and spread of disease. I give daily thanks for living in New Zealand, where the government followed scientific advice and took early action to lock the country down.

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