Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dysentery, A Less Well Known Historical Epidemic

Dysentery epidemics in the 1700s and 1800s in Sweden, which are well documented with contemporaneous written records, were much more serious than are commonly know, accounting for 90% of deaths in some regions when the epidemics struck.

Many historians have described dysentery as a regularly recurring and not very serious disease. Cholera and smallpox are often described as the most devastating epidemic diseases of that era. But [Helene] Castenbrandt's results beg to differ.

"My study points to dysentery as very epidemic in nature. The disease struck communities extremely hard at times. It flared up quite irregularly and the patterns of transmission differed from one outbreak to the next."

Using Jönköping County as an example, the study clearly shows the vast differences in dysentery mortality within the same county. The pattern of transmission for the three most severe outbreaks in 1773, 1808 and 1857 shows that although the disease spread across almost the entire county, there were some clusters with extremely high mortality. However, the hardest hit parts of the county varied.

The [doctoral] thesis [from the University of Gothenburg] also analyses the reasons behind the presence and disappearance of the disease. The results point to complex links between possible explanations such as sanitary conditions and population concentrations for example in connection with wars.


An understanding of the lessons learned in Europe during this forgotten era could inform modern efforts to address similar issues in the developing world in a manner that is not overwhelmed by donor nation concerns rooted in their own contemporary economic politics rather than the issues that were important historically when the donor nations dealt with similiar issues themselves.

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