Fear of epidemics is spreading from movie theater to movie theater, with "Contagion" all over the screen. But real-life epidemics have been reported recently as well — measles in Somalia, dengue fever in Pakistan, encephalitis in India. Here are 10 facts that are sure to spread quickly:
1/ The 1918 pandemic was commonly known as the Spanish flu, but it did not start in Spain. (Many believe it began in Kansas.) The Spanish took the rap because their king, Alfonso XIII, got sick, and because their nation was neutral in World War I and allowed an uncensored press to report on the flu.
2/ The word "quarantine" comes from the Italian word "quarantina," meaning a period of 40 days. During the Black Death, the city of Venice required ships suspected of carrying disease to sit at anchor for 40 days before they could land.
3/ The 1918 flu reached far corners of the globe. In the Fiji islands, it killed 14 percent of the population in 16 days. In the remote eastern Canadian town of Okak, more than 200 of the 266 residents died. The virus struck Okak so quickly that citizens could not provide for their many dogs; the hungry animals invaded their homes, attacking both the living and the dead. One survivor, the Rev. Andrew Asboe, armed himself with a rifle and reportedly killed more than 100 dogs.
4/ Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant in New York City in the early 1900s. She was by all accounts a talented cook. But Mallon also was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. After she infected more than 20 people, with one dying, she was isolated in a hospital for nearly three years. Officials didn't know what to do with her, so she was given a second chance. Mallon, who likely never believed health officials who said she was infected, went back to cooking. Two more people died. This time, Typhoid Mary, as she became known, was given what amounted to a life sentence. She lived out her days — 23 years — isolated in a one-room cottage on an island in the East River.
5/ When the Black Death ravaged Europe in the 14th century, learned men believed it was caused by an Italian earthquake or an alignment of the planets Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. No one knew the disease was spread by rats and fleas. A leading French doctor warned that people could become infected simply by looking at someone who was sick.
6/ During World War I, the U.S. government considered venereal disease to be a formidable enemy threatening troop readiness. Taking the offensive, authorities in the U.S. incarcerated about 30,000 suspected prostitutes and shut down red-light districts. That included New Orleans' famed Storyville, described by one official as "24 blocks given over to human degradation and lust." New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman complained about the crackdown, saying, "You can make prostitution illegal in Louisiana, but you can't make it unpopular."
7/ Nobody calls "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" a documentary, but the British comedy's "Bring out your dead" scene rings true. During the European plague, when the bodies were piling up, funeral services and processions were prohibited. Instead, corpse-removers gathered up the dead in carts to get rid of them quickly. If a house was quarantined, a relative had to throw the body into the cart from a second-floor window.
8/ English sweating sickness, which caused profuse sweating and sometimes led to a rapid death, remains a mystery more than five centuries later. After raging for more than 60 years, the last major outbreak of the disease in England was recorded in 1551. Then the "English sweat" simply vanished, with its cause never established.
9/ In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas was identified as "Patient Zero," who brought the virus to North American cities in the 1970s and early '80s. But some believe Dugas' role was exaggerated, and there is evidence that the virus was on this continent well before his travels. Tissue from a teenager who died in St. Louis in 1969 was preserved for study and was later found to contain the AIDS virus.
10/ One of the last smallpox outbreaks in Europe struck Yugoslavia in 1972. Josip Tito's totalitarian regime declared martial law. He imposed a strict national quarantine that saw the army seal off entire villages. He ordered the entire population of 20 million vaccinated. More than 10,000 people who had come into contact with infected people were shut up in hospitals and hotels for weeks. In the end, 35 of the 174 infected died.
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the Tribune's weekend editor.
Sources: "A Distant Mirror," by Barbara W. Tuchman; "Daily Life During the Black Death," by Joseph Patrick Byrne; "The Great Influenza," by John M. Barry; "The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History," by Donald R. Hopkins; "Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence," edited by George Childs Kohn; "And the Band Played On," by Randy Shilts; "Love for Sale," by Elizabeth Alice Clement; "Creating the Big Easy," by Anthony J. Stanonis; "No Magic Bullet," by Allan M. Brandt; "Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health," by Judith Walzer Leavitt; Collins English Dictionary; New York Times; pbs.org; npr.org; snopes.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun