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Cholera: From the 19th Century to Today

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Cholera: From the 19th Century to Today

Ellery Signor

College Composition II


After conducting in-depth research on Cholera, the author concluded that public health officials can learn from epidemics in the past to help the people of Haiti who are dealing with Cholera today. This paper analyzes two past epidemics, England and New York. In England, John Snow mapped and tracked the disease. After discovering the source of disease, the Broad Street Pump, he stopped the spread of disease by taking the handle off the pump and therefore, saving countless lives. This showed how a simple act can have powerful impacts. In New York, certain groups such as immigrants, poor people, and doctors were scapegoated and blamed for the spread of disease. In the 1800s, immigrants and poor people typically coincided because they moved to America with few pennies, meaning they could not afford clean housing, food, or water. The most common modes of transmission of the disease are improper waste facilities, unclean water, and unwashed food. This is the root of the problem in Haiti. As a third world country, Haiti does not have the proper infrastructure to provide its citizens with clean water sources and food sources. To avoid worsening current outbreaks and avoiding future outbreaks, we must learn from the past epidemics in England and New York.

Cholera: From the 19th Century to Today

Cholera is a fast acting disease with a high mortality rate of 50 percent without treatment, in which a victim of Vibrio cholerae can be fine at breakfast and by dinner, the victim has been overcome with the disease (Cholera, 2014). The term Cholera descended from the Greek word Khol, which means ‘flowing bile’ (Dobson, 2007). Flowing bile depicts the severe vomiting and diarrhea which characterizes the disease. These symptoms are what make Cholera dangerous, because while Cholera may not be contagious from person to person, it is transmitted by ingesting contaminated food or drink (Cholera, 2017). Currently, this becomes a problem for countries where sanitation is poor and where there is a high, dense population (Davies). Centuries ago, this plagued New York City and London, causing mass Cholera outbreaks.  Today, Haiti continues to be afflicted by Cholera, despite the discovery of treatments and vaccines being discovered. If preventative measures that originated from the 19th century were applied to the Haitian outbreak, then the loss of countless lives and potential cases could be avoided.

Cities prior to the twentieth century were filled with putrid cesspools of disease, human and animal excrement, and body odor. Factories and slaughterhouses added to this stench by dumping their waste products on to the streets and rivers below (Dobson, 2007). Herein lies the problem, as the public was eating foods sold on these streets and bathing in the rivers. These conditions gave Vibrio cholerae the perfect conditions to breed, spread, and infect the public. In the mid-nineteenth century, a London newspaper printed this quote, “We ain’t got no privies, no dust bins, no drains, no water supplies, and no sewer. We all suffer and numbers are ill. If the Cholera comes, Lord help us,” as an appeal to public health officials to improve the conditions of cities (Dobson, 2007).  

"It is not strange that health improves when the population gives up using diluted sewage as the principle beverage.” – Thurman Rice (Davies, Bowman, & Luby, 2017) 

This is a quote by a doctor in 1932. It demonstrates how such a simple idea, such as access to clean water, may be unfamiliar to the public. The unfamiliar is rarely trusted. At the time of the New York City and London outbreaks, the public believed that the disease was spread by bad air or miasmas. This explains why a health crisis could be misunderstood by an overall uneducated public.  

However, one London native understood and defeated the Cholera epidemic of his hometown. This man, John Snow, is known as the Father of Modern Medicine for his work in fighting the bacteria Vibrio cholerae. He began his work in the medical field by researching how anesthetizing gases affect the body. Using this knowledge of how gases affect the lungs, John Snow knew that Cholera could not be caused by miasmas. He speculated that the disease was caused by something the Cholera victims consumed (Shah, 2017).  

John Snow questioned victims of a Cholera epidemic. One family he interviewed was washing and disposing soiled diapers in the Broad Street Pump water supply (Shah, 2017). The couples’ baby was vomiting and producing foul smelling diarrhea---classic Cholera symptoms. Soon after the initial contamination, the entire neighbourhood was ill with Cholera. 500 of these Broad Street residents died.  

Then John Snow plotted points on a map of where the victims ate, drank and lived. After gathering this information, he discovered a pattern that showed a relationship between drinking out of the Broad Street Pump and becoming infected with Vibrio cholerae (Shah, 2017). He furthered and solidified this research by discovering the source that was contaminating the water. However, John Snow is not known for his research. He is known for taking the handle off the Broad Street Pump in 1854 and preventing more Cholera victims from falling ill (Dobson, 2007).  By this action, he proved that what went into the water was the source of the disease in the guts of Cholera victims.  

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