Monday, March 16, 2020

Lessons From the 1863 Smallpox Epidemic

One of the most important reasons to study history is to learn from the past. You know what they say - those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

A smallpox epidemic tore through Los Angeles between November 1862 and Spring 1863. What can we learn from it amidst the spread of COVID-19?

Start planning for a disaster BEFORE it happens. In 1863, there was only one hospital in the city - St. Vincent's. And the Daughters of Charity never turned away a patient in need. But the French Benevolent Society, founded in 1860, was three years into saving money to build Los Angeles' second hospital. They weren't quite ready for the 1869 outbreak (the hospital fully opened in 1870), but when the much-worse 1887 outbreak hit Los Angeles, there were two hospitals available to sick Angelenos.

When the 1862 outbreak began, the city still had no Board of Health, and the City Council had to quickly appoint one in January of 1863. Oops.

Be prepared to take emergency measures. City health officials had to vaccinate - and in one-third of cases, re-vaccinate (vaccines didn't work as reliably then) many Angelenos, and took the step of visiting every household in order to ensure it was done.

Check your xenophobia at the door. The first cases, in November 1862, hit the local Native American population, who had no natural immunity to smallpox. The disease would go on to decimate the local Native American population, and disproportionately affect Mexican Angelenos (nearly every household in Sonoratown had to be placed under quarantine). 

And when did that Board of Health appear from nowhere? January 1863, after the illness had spread too far beyond the Native American population to ignore. And only after that did the Board of Health recommend coordinating with local Native American tribes to get their members vaccinated against a deadly illness to which they were especially vulnerable in the first place.

It's 2020, so I'm sure I don't need to comment further on this.

No one likes being quarantined, but it saves lives. Smallpox patients in town were initially taken to a pesthouse (quarantine hospital) in Chavez Ravine, four miles from the city center (the Sisters found the house to be in poor condition, and moved the patients to a house close to the hospital when they could). 

In then-remote El Monte, patients were taken to Mission San Gabriel - to be treated if they were lucky and to be buried if they didn't survive the trip. El Monte officials objected to dangerously ill people being carried through town and put a stop to it. And El Monte was very badly hit, so this was probably the best thing to do under the circumstances. 

Don't assume "it won't happen here/it won't happen to me". Many Native Americans fled the smallpox-infested city for work on ranches out in the country. Alas, the illness followed them there, and the ranches were ultimately hit much harder than anywhere else.

Listen to the experts. Juan Antonio, chieftain of the Cahuilla people, is just one of the patients who tragically did not survive the traditional Cahuilla method of treating illness (sweating followed by a dive into cold water). 

Don't slack off on hygiene, and don't put anyone else at risk, either. Some Angelenos had a nasty habit of bathing in the zanjas - open ditches that supplied water to the city's households. This was bad enough, but when contagious people (including sick Native Americans trying to treat themselves) bathed in the zanjas, it only made the situation worse. Ultimately, thousands of people throughout Southern California fell ill and hundreds died.

Damien Marchesseault was Mayor of Los Angeles at the time, had been a zanjero, and was Water Overseer at one point. The smallpox epidemic is probably the most important reason why he was so hell-bent on bringing safer, cleaner water to Angelenos, even though his failed efforts culminated in his suicide.

Most importantly, take care of each other. The ethnicity of the smallpox patients didn't matter to the Hebrew Benevolent Society. They donated money out of their own treasury - and raised additional funds - to help feed and treat the sick. They did the same thing during later outbreaks, too.

Stay healthy, everyone.

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