Earlier this year, I did my best to warn you that the Zika virus was a much bigger threat than the government wanted us to believe. (In fact, just last week, I told you about some concerning new research showing this virus isn’t just a threat to pregnant women and infants. It’s also been linked to serious autoimmune problems in adults.)
But while the media spotlight was centered on Zika, another deadly infectious disease quietly snuck up on us.
This latest scourge comes from Africa, the same place where the government and certain quasi-private foundations are telling us they’re doing such a great job controlling infectious diseases.
Well, perhaps they WERE, for a while at least. But now this deadly virus is making a raging comeback.
The infectious disease that literally decimated the nation’s capital
The virus making a comeback today in Africa literally decimated Philadelphia, the capital of the young United States, in 1793 and again in 1797. (Washington, D.C. was still a malaria-riddled swamp at that point in history. Some argue it’s still an infested swamp, just without the malaria — at least for now.)
One contemporary observer described the scene in Philadelphia as a “melancholy scene of devastation,” like something out of the Middle Ages. It struck just at this same time of year (late September) and led to the abandonment of the new capital. And it killed half the people it infected. Imagine an epidemic like that hitting our nation’s capital today.
Vice President John Adams fled with his family to a country house away from the contagion of the city. Alexander Hamilton came down with the infection, but battled back. George Washington might have been immune, having survived other fevers earlier in his career. Dr. Benjamin Rush became famous in part for his heroic efforts to cure patients by bleeding them, which might have at least temporarily reduced the high fevers.
In that same year, the French Revolution occurred in Paris, where Thomas Jefferson served as U.S. Ambassador. Some experts believe the many French citizens who fled Europe brought this disease to the U.S. by stopping first in the Caribbean.
The disease remained a common scourge in early America. Fully half of early American presidents suffered from it at one point — particularly those engaged in military service (unlike our recent crop), who were exposed during service. It was one of several mysterious infections known as “camp fevers.” Soldiers and officers caught it because they lived in crowded conditions where there was stagnant water — and mosquitos that carried mysterious fevers.
Later in the 19th century, as the germ theory of disease became the scientific standard, this infection was recognized as yellow fever, caused by a virus, carried by mosquitos. It is called yellow fever because it typically infects the liver, causing jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Frederick F. Russell of the Army Medical Corps developed a vaccine for yellow fever. (Dr. Russell developed the vaccine while serving in the same position I later came to occupy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.) He then administered it to soldiers debarking for Europe during WW I.
While I was working at Walter Reed, I came across a liver specimen in the archives labeled: “Yellow fever. Charity Hospital, Louisiana. 1907.” A little research revealed that the last yellow fever epidemic in the U.S. occurred in Louisiana from 1905 to 1907. So this was not just a specimen from another fatal case of yellow fever; it was the last case of yellow fever in the U.S.
After the vaccine, yellow fever began to disappear around the world during the 20th century. But, as Thomas Jefferson said, “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
Yellow fever makes a vicious comeback
Today, the worst yellow fever epidemic in several decades is rapidly spreading throughout Angola, Africa. Congo and Kenya as well as China have also reported cases arising from travelers coming from Angola. Yellow fever is an arbovirus that belongs to the same genus as dengue, West Nile and Zika. It is transmitted not only in jungles but in urban areas as well.
World public health officials worry vaccine shortages could lead to a global health crisis if yellow fever spreads further into Africa or Asia, which they say has never experienced a yellow fever epidemic.
In the Americas, the mosquito that transmits yellow fever is already widely present. It also transmits chikungunya, dengue and Zika. In fact, The Pan American Health Organization — our local branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) — declared a yellow fever alert for Latin America in late April.
Missteps and delays must stop
The Obama administration seems to think that steak and eggs, or maybe the refrigerators that keep them, are the biggest global threat to humanity — not infectious diseases or even terrorism. But many informed health experts in the U.S. take infectious disease outbreaks very seriously.
For example, in a recent report in the Journal of the AMA, researchers criticized the WHO’s many missteps and delays in confronting the Ebola and Zika viruses. They say if the WHO doesn’t improve its response with yellow fever, thousands of lives will be lost unnecessarily.
The JAMA authors added, “If the WHO does not successfully reform [its practices], the next major pandemic will cause thousands of otherwise preventable deaths… Another failure to perform may necessitate consideration of alternate UN institutional response mechanisms.”
Meanwhile, Washington keeps sending more of your tax dollars to pay the largest single share of UN and WHO expenses.
As Mark Twain said, “Denial is not just a river in Africa.”
“A Yellow Fever Epidemic: A New Global Health Emergency?” JAMA. 2016;315(24):2661-2662