Yellow Fever: Not a Thing of the Past

Ever remember hearing the terms plague, cholera, and perhaps yellow fever?

I’m pleased to host Sherri Johnson Wilson today as she discusses her research into yellow fever for her latest release To Dance Once More. Sherri is giving away an e-book! So, please leave a comment and we’ll draw the lucky winner Saturday, April 21st at midnight. Winner announced Sunday, April 22nd!

Welcome, Sherri!

In my Victorian-era novel, To Dance Once More, Lydia Barrington narrowly escapes contracting Yellow Fever while on a visit with relatives in Pensacola, Florida in 1890.
“Yellow Jack” as it was called was deadly and most doctors were not quick to declare that the epidemic had come to their towns. Such an announcement could cause widespread panic and a mass exodus of people that could, therefore, infect the rest of the country.
An outbreak in 1874 in Pensacola caused over 350 deaths. At that time, there were only 1,400 residents! Another epidemic in 1877 struck 1,500 out of 1,600 residents of Fernandina! Imagine everyone in your town being stricken with a disease with only 100 people left to take care of them.
There are three stages of Yellow Fever and the symptoms vary according to the severity of the disease. The symptoms are: fever (of course), bloody nose, a slow heartbeat, vomiting, neck and back pain, jaundice from hepatitis (hence the term ‘yellow”), organ failure, or even death. The treatment is the same as for many other viruses: rest, fluids, and acetaminophen for the fever and aches. Hospitalization may be required.
Fever is the first sign of the disease and in early America, fever WAS a disease. It was equivalent to being diagnosed with cancer today. We often think of a fever as the body’s way of fighting infection. It is. However, we now have medication available to reduce fevers. Historically, short of packing someone in ice and watching them around the clock, there was no other way to reduce a fever. Indeed, the sign of a fever back in the 1800s and before would have been a tragic thing.
We traded with the West Indes and it seemed that many of the ships returning from there had outbreaks. Doctors tried to prevent Yellow Fever or at least isolate it with quarantine, fumigation, and sanitation. When ships came in from ports outside of America, they were quarantined for a week or more before allowing any passengers or soldiers to disembark. Many lives were lost because of Yellow Fever—many sons who had gone off to conquer the world and discover new things never returned.
Eventually, doctors discovered that Yellow Fever was transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Since the tropics had more mosquitoes than the Americas and people returning from there were sick, it began to make sense that this was not a human-to-human problem but a mosquito-to-human issue. The slaves from the West Indes were not infected with the disease yet tourists to Florida and other coastal regions were. It later became known that once contracted, you were immune and that was why slaves did not fall ill yet newly exposed people did.
Most mosquitoes live outside in stagnant water and swampy, marshy areas. After one night of camping in the middle of August in Panama City Beach, Florida, after a destructive hurricane had come through, I awoke covered with over 100 bites on my body. The area we camped in had stagnant water puddles everywhere. I was miserable and felt sickly for days. I cannot fathom what one must feel like with Yellow Fever.
Today, it is known that a specific mosquito carries the Yellow Fever virus—the Aedes aegypti. It likes urban areas and breeds in clean standing water, which was often found in cisterns inside homes before the invention of indoor plumbing. It was like there was a big welcome sign above the door inviting the pests in to raise their families alongside the homeowners. The Aedes aegypti survived the mild winters of the coastal regions and as the population of America grew, they found plenty of tasty people to bite, which allowed Yellow Fever to spread.
Once doctors discovered Yellow Fever’s cause, it was finally brought under control by quarantine and fumigation around the turn of the century. After an outbreak in 1905, the swamps around Pensacola were drained and Yellow Fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses, such as malaria, no longer plagued the area.
We still must be careful, however. Although the cause of Yellow Fever was discovered, the mosquito still exists. Since there is no cure for this illness, prevention is the key. We must all watch for stagnant water outside and also breeding grounds inside, such as standing water in the trays of our inside plants.
Here are some interesting links to learn more about Yellow Fever.
Sherri Wilson Johnson is the author of To Dance Once More and Song of the Meadowlark. She is from Georgia, has been married since 1988, and is a former homeschooling mom. She loves to write, read, eat ice cream, ride roller coasters and make people laugh. She loves Jesus and hopes to spread His love to the whole world through her writing.