Diseases and pestilences

Who of us who lived through early 1980s Jamaica can forget the stir caused by Michigan and Smiley’s song, Diseases, released just before a polio outbreak in the country?

Min’ Jah lick yu wid diseases
The most dangerous diseases
I’m talking like the elephantitis
The other one is the poliomyelitis
Arthritis and the one diabetes.

Some regarded the song as prescient, even prophetic. Thankfully, the spread of polio was controlled through the quick and authoritative action of the health authorities.

As an island with multiple entry points, Jamaica has always been susceptible to the possible “importation” of diseases and epidemics. The country, therefore, has become highly sensitive and edgy even at the mere threat of diseases and outbreaks.

A few years ago, a young immigration officer at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay got testy with me after I declared, as required, that I had been to Haiti just several weeks before. Haiti, at the time, suffered from a cholera outbreak.

After I protested her decision that I go through a health screening before being granted entry into the country, she blurted out so that all within earshot could hear, “You wan’ go Haiti and bring cholera inna di country!”

This sensitivity to the entry of diseases goes way back. In earlier centuries, the main concerns were over cholera and yellow fever.  The publication, Jamaica in 1896: Handbook of Information, said “Asiatic Cholera visited the island” in 1850. “The deaths were estimated at 32,000.” This was out of a population of roughly 400,000, according to John Bigelow in his book, Jamaica in 1850, originally published in 1851.

In 1852, medical doctor John Parkin wrote an extensive 82-page Statistical Report of The Epidemic Cholera In Jamaica in which he, among other things, said the disease, “in the course of a few months, decimated the Island of Jamaica.”

Parkin’s report stated:

The Epidemic Cholera, as is well known, commenced in the Island of Jamaica, at Port Royal, on the 8th of October, 1851, and, in a few weeks, carried off a third of the population. It had been prevailing at Chagres, and on the Isthmus of Panama, for some time previously; and it was stated, that the disease had been imported into this Island by one of the American steamers, which touch here on their voyage from the above port to New York.

He said “the disease soon spread to Kingston, on the opposite side of the bay carrying off 6,000 out of a population of 40,000” after which it “spread with unusual rapidity to other parts of the Island.”

One is left to conjecture if Jamaica in 1896, published by the Institute of Jamaica, which said the cholera outbreak was in 1850, and Parkin’s book, which said it happened in 1851, referred to the same outbreak or whether there were two just a year, or even a few months apart.

A debate in the parliament of Britain in June 1852 put a different spin on what transpired in the colony. “Affairs in Jamaica were now looking so awfully ruinous, and prospects so mournfully distressing,” a parliamentarian and Jamaican plantation owner stated. Based on remarks made in that session, the cholera epidemic occurred in 1851 and a smallpox outbreak happened in 1852: “The successive and calamitous dispensations of Providence—the ravages of the cholera last year [1851], and of the small-pox this year [1852], bade fair to deprive the colonists of the legitimate stock of labour to which they were entitled.”

It would be helpful that a historian with a handle on the facts explain the obvious discrepancies in the records.

It appears the Jamaican Assembly was tardy, perhaps even uninterested in providing assistance to help those affected by the outbreaks. Sir George Grey, speaking in the British parliament on July 7, 1854, expressed regret that “the House of Assembly at Jamaica had declined to provide the funds for sending the requisite medical and other assistance” while, at the same time, failing to make requests of the British government for assistance.

Remains of the Naval Hospital in Port Royal, rebuilt 1818 - 2
Remains of the Old Naval Hospital in Port Royal, rebuilt in 1818. Port Royal was one of the main entry points for diseases into Jamaica. (Photo courtesy of UDC).

Much of what we learn of the action taken during outbreaks came from reports made by United States consul officers in Jamaica, who made regular dispatches to the State Department in the US. For some reason, Port Royal appeared to be ground zero for entry of diseases into the country. A dispatch from Kingston on April 1, 1901, by Ethelbert Watts, US Consul, read, “I have the honor to report that a few days ago I learned incidentally from a friend that several cases of yellow fever existed at Port Royal, this island, and in consequence the white troops stationed there were ordered up the hills.”

Just about a year later, on March 6, 1902, Consul William B. Sorsby wrote to the US Assistant Secretary of State that “there were several cases of yellow fever at Port Royal” and that “the superintendent of the island medical office who told me that three cases of yellow fever had developed in the barracks among the troops at Port Royal.” Once again, “the troops had immediately been sent to the mountain.”

The constant threat of cholera, yellow fever and other infections eventually led authorities to take decisive action to prevent disease entering into the colony. Threat levels seemed to have been high early in the twentieth century. On July 6, 1903, a commercial agent in Port Antonio said “ships arriving from Philadelphia are now detained by quarantine on account of smallpox.” US Vice-Consul Orrett reported on August 9, 1905, “by an official publication the governor of this island has declared New Orleans is, as well as the Republic of Panama (including the Canal Zone), to be infected places within the meaning of the quarantine laws, in view of the prevalence of yellow fever in those respective places.”

In an August 2, 1911, report, a Dr. Geddes mentioned the “measures against importation of cholera” into Jamaica. He said “the port quarantine authorities have decided that all vessels arriving from New York must, before coming alongside their piers, pump out all water that may be in any part of the vessel.”

US Consul Dreher reported on June 28, 1912, “that strict quarantine regulations have been established by the Government of Jamaica against Porto Rico on account of the outbreak of bubonic plague in that island. During this quarantine no vessel from Porto Rico will be allowed to land at any port in the island of Jamaica.” Dreher, in an update in August of that year, reported from Port Antonio “that the quarantine regulations put in force against arrivals from Porto Rico have been extended to apply to vessels coming from Cuba.”

During the SARS scare in China in 2002 and that of the global fear over swine flu in 2009, Jamaica was placed on high alert. The country battled the outbreak of the Chikungunya virus in 2014 and it now faces the threat of the Zika virus. With all this happening, we are reminded that the fear of outbreaks and infestation is nothing new. It goes back centuries.

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