Man, Travel, and the Spread of Disease

We talked about the spread of disease through international travel this week in class. This topic has always been interesting to me, especially historically. Many of the most devastating disease outbreaks have been a result of our global transport network and international travel. This problem isn’t new however. Some of these cases include the bubonic plague, and even the weaponized use of ‘smallpox blankets’ used during the united states westward expanse. I highlight these two particularly due to their extreme impact on our history.

The plague, or ‘black death’ was estimated to kill 200 million, or roughly a third of the european population at the time. The classical explanation of this unprecedented spread of disease is that rats were the primary vector, bringing the disease from the ports and rapidly spreading it throughout the city. While this is still a result of ships traveling from port to port spreading the diseased ‘rats’ many historians believe the cause is much simpler. Evaluating the speed at which the disease would spread from the port of a city, throughout its population, it is very unlikely rats could be to blame for this; it’s just too fast. The more likely explanation is simply that humans are the primary vector. The inability to limit exposure of infected individuals led to one of the most widespread and devastating epidemics in human history.

During colonial america, the native population was exposed to a pantheon of european diseases they had no previous exposure, and thus immunity, to. As a result, their population was constantly plagued with new and lethal diseases while simultaneously in a territorial struggle with the cause of all these unseen threats. There is some debate over the intentions of the Fort Pitt incident, however, I think it’s pretty clear that the military base was interested in an easy military victory over their opposition while making themselves look generous. The story goes, the fort offered an olive branch to the local native american tribe giving them supplies and blankets under the guise of a stop in expansion. The very same native population exploded with an outbreak of smallpox. The US then resumed their expansion westward and overtook their land.

Some more modern examples include AIDS, H1N1, and Ebola which we spoke about in class. Given all these examples, and our sophisticated healthcare system, I believe it is irresponsible to not screen international travelers for disease that could potentially thwart the next disease outbreak.

Dylan Nourse 


One thought on “Man, Travel, and the Spread of Disease

  1. Everyday there are thousands of flights traveling all over the world, it is scary to think about how fast a new contagious disease could spread in todays world. Its interesting how you dugouts that the black plagued was actually spread by humans and not rats, I’ve always been taught that it was spread by rats. But it being spread by traveling humans in port cities also makes a lot of sense. So humans spreading disease has been a great threat for many many years. I think that screening travelers coming into the country would be a great way to protect our health, just as long as the screening is done ethically and politely.

    – Tom Walters


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