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Tens of millions of victims: how a harmless microbe became a champion in the number of pandemics


Source: report

History knows many infections, in addition to the coronavirus, that threatened civilization. One of them is cholera. "" tells how this disease became a mass killer, from which neither poor nor rich people could escape.

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Themselves to blame

Cholera is a fulminant disease that can kill a person in a day. Its causative agent - the bacterium Vibrio cholera - is one of the champions in the number of pandemics arranged. Although cholera is now considered a disease of poor countries with poorly developed infrastructure (outbreaks occur in Haiti, Iraq, Yemen and African countries), in the past it was rampant in developed Europe, destroying all. In the XNUMXth century, six pandemics occurred at once, which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people.

It is believed that cholera arose due to the British colonization of South Asia, as well as the industrial revolution, which paved the way for the microbe to Europe and North America. To some extent, it was cholera that caused the appearance of water supply and sewage systems, because pure water turned out to be the most effective remedy for the disease. A new paradigm has appeared: infections arise where unsanitary conditions reign and hygiene is absent. True, in the modern world, cleanliness is not always a guarantee of health, and new pathogens, such as Staphylococcus aureus, can spread even in sterile hospital boxes.

Vibrio cholerae was originally a harmless microbe and lived in the mangrove forest of Sundarbana (India and Bangladesh), where it participated in a symbiotic relationship with copepods. For a long time, the human foot hardly stepped on these territories, however, in the second half of the XVIII century, English colonists invaded here. After a hundred years, people settled almost throughout Sundarban and lived knee-deep in brackish water teeming with infected copepods. Long and close contacts allowed the vibrios to gradually adapt to the human body, but they did not immediately become killers.

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Nimble infection

A key acquisition of Vibrio cholera is a toxin that causes the intestines to act the other way around: suck out water and electrolytes from the body’s tissues and cause diarrhea and dehydration.

The disease manifested itself suddenly: a healthy-looking person began to have severe and indomitable diarrhea, which could catch him at home, on the street or in a public building. Due to the loss of water, the patient literally dried up, turning into a living mummy.

In Europe in the XNUMXth century, cholera was considered a humiliating disease, depriving a person of dignity and equating him with the poor and the inhabitants of slums. The causative agent of cholera polluted the streets, drinking water, remained in the hands of the sick and healthy, and spread. The outbreak was a wave, striking new cities and literally striving for Europe.

Cholera spread through transport routes and raged wherever unsanitary conditions reigned, where people lived side by side with fecal waste. The overcrowding also played a fatal role, in particular, the growth of slums, where vibrios easily penetrated into groundwater. Only housing reforms have reduced mortality from cholera and other infections in Western countries, but hundreds of millions of people still live in terrible conditions in poor regions of the planet.

A person often plays into the hands of infections. Deforestation, high population density, close and long contacts with wild animals are sure ways to bring on a deadly pathogen. Another “mortal sin” is ignorance and prejudice.

Ironically, the cure for cholera is an elementary one. So that the body does not die from dehydration, you just need to replenish the lost fluid. Pure water with a pinch of salt would reduce mortality from 50 to just over one percent.

This remedy was proposed in the 1830s, during the second cholera pandemic. However, the overwhelming majority of physicians of the XNUMXth century were of the opinion that this disease is caused by miasms - some "fetid fumes." Therefore, to protect people, in their opinion, it is necessary with the help of strong aromas. Sometimes people for preventive purposes were forced to smell manure.

Cholera hysteria

In times of disaster, many tend to look for the guilty and show open hostility towards foreigners, doctors, officials and neighbors. In this situation, it does not matter whether the object of aggression really became the culprit or cause of the epidemic. In the 30s of the XIX century, after the cholera there was a wave of what historians called the “pandemic of hatred”. The cholera riots that swept Russia, Western Europe and the United States became real mass hysteria and had nothing to do with logic. Even the undeniably effective measure of containment of the disease - quarantine - became the cause of the riots.

In the UK, there were rumors that in hospitals they get rid of patients, “cleaning” the society, and doctors kill patients to get corpses for anatomical studies. Physicians were beaten, attacked hospitals and isolation wards, police and officials became victims. People also protested against the burial of those who died from cholera in local cemeteries.

In Spain, the residents of Madrid decided that the monks who poisoned the wells for political reasons caused the cholera epidemic and began to smash churches and houses of worship. A similar situation arose in San Francisco, where a mob massacred representatives of the Franciscan order. The victims of the pogroms and bloodshed were immigrants, although the landlords largely blamed the immigrant quarters into densely populated slums. At first, the Irish were blamed for everything that was believed to have brought cholera to the United States. Then society switched to Hajj Muslim pilgrims. At the end of the XNUMXth century, immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Hungarians and Russian Jews, became the object of hatred.

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In 2010, the largest outbreak of cholera in the 4,5st century occurred in Haiti, which claimed the lives of XNUMX people. The sanitary situation in Haiti left much to be desired, a river filled with sewage became a source of infection. At the same time, Haitians are confident that cholera got to the island because of the UN forces, which deliberately brought it from Nepal. The results of a study of the pathogen genome showed that cholera was indeed brought from Nepal, but with a high degree of probability the carrier was a latent carrier that did not suspect that a cholera bomb was lurking in it. But that was enough to cause clashes and riots in Haiti.

Although the source of the appearance of cholera on the island as a whole was correctly identified, the outbreak reached epidemic proportions due to other factors, including deforestation and civil war, as well as unsanitary conditions and local infrastructure problems in Haiti.


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