The Great Small Pox Epidemic

Among all the diseases that were inadvertently brought by colonizers, Smallpox gave the most startling and most overwhelming. The disease roots from a highly infectious virus called the Variola major. The virus spreads through the breaths of those infected that will travel through air on humid droplets or dust particles. Contaminated air will then enter the lungs of innocent people, thus smallpox is transmitted. After twelve days, victims will suffer from a severe fever and queasiness.

Then for the succeeding three or four days, the entire body of the infected ones will then have horrible sores. These sores, the so-called smallpox converts normal individuals to gruesome beings with erupting flesh. Aside from the ugly appearance, smallpox also makes its victims suffer from pain, incapacitation, and disfiguration. Testimonials from individuals who witness the sufferings of the victims describe that the infected victims breaks and runs to one another. Then after sometime, knowing the fact that their condition were at the worst, they die like sheep and rots along the roads.

The author, Elizabeth Fenn, tries to find out how smallpox travelled from one group to another. Through this, Fenn showed how the contagious disease voyaged through the waterways on fur trade routes. She believes that smallpox spread through the traders as they sojourn across continents. Most of the places these traders went became empty, thus revolutionizing the power equilibrium of Indian nations. During the Revolutionary War, Americans feared that the smallpox may be used by their enemy, the British, as a weapon of war.

Although there are no concrete evidences, some believe that the British had done so. European and African people during the early modern era were observed to have a fatality rate that goes around 25 to 33 percent of the infected. On the other hand, infected Native Americans had a fatality rate twice as Europeans and Africans. Although remnants of smallpox were embedded on their body and at times blinded, those who survived from the deadly disease were granted precious lifetime smallpox immunity.

However, this absolute immunity cannot be transferred to their offspring. In result, every North American generation was very vulnerable to the contagious and deadly disease. Fenn stated that besides the fact that the British invaders possess greater immunity, the colonists developed two systematic preventive measures to stop the infection: 1) quarantines; and 2) “variolation”. The British locked up assumed hosts of the disease to isolated pesthouses and were taken cared by doctors who possessed immunity from the disease.

Variolation involved a deliberate insertion of live smallpox matter through a cut on the arm or the hand, for some uncertain reasons that this process is less deadly when taken through incision rather that through inhalation. Aside from the fact that George Washington’s troops were Native Americans, most of them also lacked immunities from previous exposure, Fenn furthered. Due to limited funds, variolating all of them seemed to be impossible since the process requires massive and expensive operations.

Other factors were the temporary organization and the flawed disciplined new rebel army. If they variolate the rest a fraction of the army may lead to boosting the exposure to the other fraction of the army. Since variolation involves operations, variolated soldiers will have to take a rest, thus implementing variolation to the whole army will make them defenceless from the British army for a few weeks. At first, Washington along with his officers discarded the process of variolation and implemented quarantine.

This action was ineffective particularly to new troops since they believe that being quarantined tarnishes their freedom. Thus Washington decided to use the variolation or inoculation process. The spread of the epidemic across the continent resulted to some consequences. Fenn estimates that smallpox became the cause of the death of approximately one hundred thirty thousand North Americans, a large portion of them were Indians. Smallpox claimed more lives than the casualties during the whole war duration.

Since the smallpox epidemic greatly affected some areas, native groups that suffered less seize that opportunity. For example, village Indians of the Missouri Valley existed in large population, hence their death tolls were larger than their enemies like the horse nomads. In effect, the smallpox occurrence became a chance for expanding Americans to control larger grounds. Fenn narrates a story illustrating the effects of certain epidemic like the smallpox on a particular situation.

In a war, for example, incidents such as smallpox infection could be very harmful for some groups but, on the other hand, can be a great opportunity for some. The book demonstrates how a highly contagious epidemic impacts on the society. It is true that ignorance and terror accompany the spread and impact of the disease. Although the book tells a story from the past, we all know that the scenarios illustrated in the book can still happen to us today. And that is inevitable. Works Cited Fenn, Elizabeth A. 2003. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill & Wang Publications.

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