Scourges not a fiction of long ago, but a threat today

Africa, with its AIDS epidemic, is far away, and the plague seems ancient, but the Northwest is not immune to such calamity

By Robert Boyd

Special to The Oregonian
Op Ed from The Sunday Oregonian, March 4, 2001, Commentary section pp. 1-2

In the past few years the media have reported intermittently on the epidemiological disaster that is happening, right now, in Africa. Time magazine’s recent cover story, “Death Stalks a Continent,” has given it the broad exposure it deserves.

Classic plagues such as sleeping sickness, malaria and tuberculosis are resurgent, while the “new” disease, AIDS, has infected 25 million people, up to a quarter of the adult population in the most heavily afflicted nations in the southern cone of the continent. Seventeen million have died; 12 million are orphans. These epidemic diseases are decimating whole segments of populations, unraveling social fabrics and threatening the future of sub-Saharan Africa as the rest of the world rushes ahead on the crest of an economic and technological wave.

In the Northwest, we may feel safe and smug and not worry about such things. After all, the “epidemic age” in our own past–when bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera and others wiped out whole communities and plunged entire societies into the despair of the Dark Ages–is long gone. medical and public health advances largely have brought these ancient scourges under control. Even the AIDS epidemic, which for the past 20 years has grown and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, with new drugs seems to have stabilized and become less life-threatening in the United States and Western Europe.

But we should not be complacent, and we must always be aware of conditions that foster outbreaks of deadly, devastating epidemic diseases. [to p. C2, Disease: Entire villages devastated by early epidemics] A Chicago Tribune series on the African crisis points out several of these: the intrusion of humans and their activities into new and complex ecosystems; the contact of hitherto isolated populations that have developed their own set of indigenous ailments; the effects of rapid social change, population growth and poverty; and wars that shatter medical and public health systems.

In the Northwest, we have had our own devastating epidemics–some of the worst (by the proportion of people who died) in the recent recorded history of the world. I’m not talking about the polio epidemic of my childhood in the 1950s or the flu pandemic that hit the Northwest in 1918 when my parents were children. both maimed and killed, but neither was anything like the epidemics that swept through the northwest a century earlier, devastating the rich cultures of our Native American predecessors.

In 1830, centering on the numerous villages of Chinookan-speaking natives of the Portland area, a heretofore unknown disease, called either “fever and ague” or “intermittent fever” and characterized by alternating spells of hot sweats and shaking chills, claimed nearly 90 percent of the local Native American population.

The disease–almost certainly a form of malaria–was brought by whites and introduced into a frontier region where effective medicines were not available and to a population that had no idea of how to treat it. The results were apocalyptic. In the disease’s focal area during the late 1830s and early 1840s, abandoned Indian villages were everywhere, and Indian cemeteries were filled to overflowing. By 1841, when the overland migrations of whites began to appear to claim the land, there were few original inhabitants left to contest them.

In the little more than a half century preceding 1830, when white people first came into contact with northwest Native Americans, the same thing had happened, not once but twice before, and with another disease new to the Northwest, smallpox. Lewis and Clark met survivors and commented on the abandoned villages of two epidemics in the Portland area, approximately in 1801 and the mid-1770s that “raged in their towns and distroyed their nation.”

Smallpox, gone from the modern world since 1978, but maintained in vials in laboratories in the United States and Russia, is one of the most gruesome and deadly infectious diseases in human history. It can attack 100 percent of small, non-immune communities and kill an average of 30 percent of those infected. The mid-1770s epidemic is known from historical records throughout Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, the same for the central northwest coast in 1801.

Time after time for a century, epidemics swept through Northwest Indian populations. And all were proportionately more deadly than anything in the past 125 years. measles in 1847-48 struck throughout the Northwest with a mortality estimated by the Hudson’s Bay company at 10 percent, mostly children. smallpox hit again in 1836 on the British Columbia coast, hopscotching to Southern Oregon and northern California, and yet again in 1853 in the areas in-between.

To cap it off, in 1862-63, the great smallpox epidemic of British Columbia spread from a single passenger on a ship from San Francisco to Victoria. It infected Indians encamped for trading on the outskirts of the city, who were expelled by frightened authorities. the Indians carried the plague via canoe to all coastal Indian villages on the way to their homelands in the Queen Charlottes and on the northern British Columbia coast. Twenty thousand Indians, more than a third of the native population of British Columbia, died.

The great British Columbia smallpox epidemic happened 138 years ago; the great Oregon epidemic occurred 170 years ago. Both happened in the Northwest, in our own home. History has largely forgotten or ignored these disasters, perhaps because they happened to nonwhites, or because they were ugly and we don’t want to know about them, or because we assume they are in the past and can’t or won’t happen again.

But as the present tragedy in Africa shows, such plagues are not past. the conditions that contribute to their appearance and spread exist in various parts of the world–there is no guarantee that such conditions won’t arise elsewhere in the future. the diseases won’t necessarily be known quantities such as malaria and smallpox, but they could be equally destructive and deadly. Effective treatments may not be readily available.

We must be aware of our past and realize that it could recur. We must empathize with and help other peoples, regardless of geographic and cultural distance or the color of their skin, who are experiencing such horrific outbreaks. We someday could well be them.

The writer: Robert Boyd of southeast Portland is an anthropological consultant, writer and adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Portland State university. His latest book is “The Coming of the spirit of Pestilence: introduced infectious diseases and population decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874″ (University of Washington/UBC Presses, 1999).

The issue: We’re complacent about the epidemiological disaster that’s engulfed Africa. We shouldn’t be–the northwest has had its own epidemics and could again.