COVID-19, not history’s first contagion rodeo

No one knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. That’s a fact. At this point any prediction is just a guess.

But COVID-19 is not history’s first contagion rodeo. The world has experienced similar events over the centuries, conquered them, and is better equipped to meet such challenges today than ever before.

Bubonic plague---the Black Death---has existed for 3,000 years. It wiped out some 20 million people in Western Europe in a four-year period in the Middle Ages, probably a quarter of its entire population. Caused by bacteria, it’s still around, but only isolated cases are now reported, thanks to modern sanitation, antibiotics and pesticides.

A century ago, influenza claimed more than 20 million lives worldwide in less than a year. In the U.S. about 25 percent of the population contracted it, and half a million died. It’s been a threat for hundreds of years, and because the virus can mutate swiftly, a breakout could occur anytime. But today we have vaccines that we rely on to keep it at bay.

Smallpox was probably responsible for the death of more people than any other infectious disease in history. It was likely the cause of the death of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses V more than three millennia ago. European conquerors carried the virus to the Americas starting in the 1500s, where it devastated the native tribes.

Half of the Aztec nation---about 3 ½ million people---died from smallpox in a two-year span, from 1520 to 1522. Half to two-thirds of the Plains Indians were wiped out by it by the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

In Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries, smallpox killed about 400,000 people annually. And as late as the 1950s there were still 50 million cases worldwide each year.

But English physician Edward Jenner developed smallpox vaccination treatment in 1796, and the vaccine had spread worldwide by the mid-1800s. Incidence of the disease steadily declined. In 1920 about 110,000 cases were reported in the United States, and that figured dropped to fewer than 3,000 cases by 1940. The last case of smallpox in the U.S. took place in 1949.

In 1967 the World Health Organization undertook a global effort to eradicate smallpox worldwide. Using disease surveillance, quality inspection of vaccine production, and flexible methods of large-scale disease control, the project was totally successful.

The last naturally acquired case of smallpox in the world occurred in Ethiopia in 1977.

Polio has undergone the same kind of eradication program, with tremendous success worldwide. Today, thanks to the combined vaccinating efforts of many individuals and organizations, including the World Health Organization, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Rotary International, only a handful of cases have been reported, and only in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It takes more than pharmaceuticals to fight infectious diseases, of course. It takes people willing to take basic actions to control the spread. People who follow recognized health care guidelines. And people who care about other people.

Most advanced nations, and some not so advanced, appear to be succeeding in beating back COVID-19. The United States is apparently an exception; we lead every other nation by far in the incidence of the disease, and in COVID-caused deaths.

More so than in other countries, the defeat of the pandemic in America is probably going to have to wait for either a vaccine or “herd immunity”---a condition in which so many people become infected that the population immunizes itself through antigens.

It’s not that we don’t know what to do. We do.

The pandemic will end sometime. The human cost by then will be a function of right decisions and mutual concern---in other words, how well we rise to meet the challenge in the meantime.

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