Recently, UK-based economist Jim O’Neill said that he was thankful that the coronavirus outbreak began in China and not in a place like India. He went on to laud China’s methods for tackling the outbreak, taking a swipe at Indian governance.
O’Neill probably couldn’t have been more ill-informed. History has shown that India, in fact, has borne the brunt of outbreaks from across the world, but has not been the origin of any of them — be it plague, Spanish flu or smallpox. India’s tryst with sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhoea were more visible during the British rule.
Plague, which affects humans and mammals, is caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. The first pandemic of plague, reliably reported, dates back to the reign of Justinian 1, a Byzantine emperor in the sixth century.
Several thousand died in the first bout, as it spread till Persia and is believed to have been transmitted through rats in travelling ship vessels, spreading them in crowded and unhygienic conditions. The next recorded deaths caused by plague in the 14th century, known as ‘Black Death’, claimed more than 25 million lives across the continent.
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The Great Plague of London in the 17th century caused about 4,60,000 deaths and in the same century rocked the Netherlands. North Africa, Poland, Turkey, Hungary, Germany, and Malta saw deaths in thousands across the countries. France in the turn of the 18th century saw the worst of plague spell in Marseilles, killing 40,000 people.
The disease surfaced in India around the 19th century in Gujarat, Sind and Rajasthan. This period called the third great plague epidemic reached China and Hong Kong and the port cities in the countries, as it spread to parts of the world, killing over 10 million. The most infected were in Bombay and Calcutta, Cape Town, and San Francisco.
The third epidemic resulted in the scientific understanding of the disease. India witnessed the bubonic and pneumonic plague in 1994 with cases reported across states in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, New Delhi, etc. Recording 50 deaths and 693 cases, there was no case of the disease being exported to other countries.
The Pandemic of 1918, caused by the strain of influenza called Spanish flu, towards the end of the World War-I, was first found among military personnel in the United States. Affecting over 500 million people or one-third of the world, it is the most devastating outbreak in recent history. With about 50 million deaths and around 6,75,000 being in the United States, it reached India through the Bombay port and at least 18 million lost their lives in India—a fifth of the global toll.
Forgotten in the last three decades, smallpox, an infectious disease caused by a combination of viruses, has been raising its head across countries from the third century BCE. It can be traced to Egypt through evidence in the form of rashes on mummies. The disease’s spread is largely attributed to the growth of civilisations, explorations and spread of trade.
From the sixth century, the disease spread across to China, Korea, Japan and in subsequent centuries, it spread to European countries, and alongside colonisation, it entered Africa and Australia.
While India had recorded its first evidence of the disease in the seventh century, its fight with the disease intensified in the 20th century. In the 1960s, India accounted for almost 60 percent of the total smallpox cases in the world. Beating the disease turned out to be an uphill task.
After an unsuccessful campaign to end the disease in the late 60s, the World Health Organisation sent a team in 1971 for a revised eradication programme. While the outbreak peaked in 1974 with over 11,000 cases in a single week, about 15,000 deaths occurred, with a large fraction of them in the endemic states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.
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In a year, by mid-1975, the disease was eradicated as the efforts were stepped up further through a programme called ‘Target Zero’.
Sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis were recorded in India only during the 16th century, known as the Portuguese Disease. By the early 19th century, when the British had gained ascendancy over a large part of the subcontinent, syphilis was already widely disseminated. The authentic records for the diseases, also known as venereal diseases could be found in the British period.
According to a report in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology published in 2006, in regiments of the British army stationed in India, the percentage of troops admitted to hospitals with venereal diseases (identified in almost equal proportion as primary syphilis and gonorrhoea) rose to 205 per 1,000 in 1875 and peaked at 522 per 1,000 in 1895.