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Panminerva Medica 1999 March;41(1):78-84

language: English

The ­major epi­dem­ic infec­tions: a ­gift ­from the old ­world to the new?

Sessa R. 1 2, Pal­a­gia­no C. 1 3, Sci­fo­ni M. G. 3, Di Pie­tro M. 1 2, Del Piano M. 1 2

From the 1 Interdivisional Centre for Social Diseases, 2 Institute for Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, 3 Institute for Geography, Faculty of Letters and Philosophy “La Sapienza” University, Rome, Italy


With the dis­cov­ery of the New World, the Europeans ­flocked to America and ­with ­them ­spread infec­tious dis­eas­es. During ­long sea voy­ag­es the ­agents of ­these dis­eas­es ­increased ­their dif­fu­sion capac­ity in a suit­able envi­ron­ment. Lack of ­hygiene, ­fatigue and pri­va­tions, a ­diet with­out vita­mins and ­many per­sons ­kept in con­fined spac­es ­were the essen­tial fea­tures of ­this envir­o­ment. Sick per­sons, ­whose ­health con­di­tions wors­ened dur­ing the jour­ney to the New World, car­ried the ­germs of infec­tious dis­eas­es. The ­first dis­ease to ­appear in the New World was small­pox ­described in 1518 in Hispaniola. From ­there the dis­ease ­moved rap­id­ly to Mexico in 1520, exter­mi­nat­ing ­most of the Aztecs, Guatemala and to the ter­ri­to­ries of Incas ­from 1525-26, kill­ing ­most of ­them and the King him­self. The sec­ond dis­ease, influen­za, ­appeared in La Isabela, a few ­years lat­er, caus­ing a ­heavy epi­dem­ic ­between 1558 and 1559. Other dis­eas­es fol­lowed ­such as yel­low ­fever and malar­ia. So Europeans and ­these invis­ible and mor­tal ­agents ­caused enor­mous destruc­tion of American pop­u­la­tions. In ­fact his­to­rians ­have esti­mat­ed ­that begin­ning ­from ear­ly 1500, in ­only 50 ­years the pop­u­la­tion of Peru and Mexico ­fell ­from 60 to 10 mil­lion; in the lat­ter coun­try, in one cen­tu­ry, the pop­u­la­tions ­fell ­from an ­initial 10 mil­lion to ­only 2 mil­lion.

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