Contact tracing, hotspots and plodding through sewers: Cholera in Bangalore 1895

Bangalore cholera outbreak 1895
During the cholera outbreak in Bangalore in 1895, there was then, as now, a constant battle between faith and reason, both in India and the UK | Image - Prathap Ravishankar

Epidemics of smallpox, plague and cholera have been part of human history for ever and ever and our partial success over the past few decades has perhaps inured us to the twists and turns of biology and evolution, and thus disease and epidemics.

In India, systematic efforts to battle epidemic disease were first attempted in the 19th century, armed with the new knowledge coming out of the works of Koch, Virchow, Pasteur, Jenner; the sanitation engineering of Brunel; and the experience of the Indian Medical Service (IMS), supplemented by the increasing numbers of Indians who were actively engaged in the medical professions, at various levels.

There was then, as now, a constant battle between faith and reason, both in India and the UK, and the world of the recently discovered bacteria excited all kinds of apprehensions, much like the even ‘smaller’ viruses provoke ‘shock and awe’ now.

One wry editorial in the Indian Medical Gazette pointed in 1876, as evidence of local superstition, the practice in southern India of beating drums and blowing horns to drive an illness (dengue) out of a village  (apparently to the next one!); a process which, they were also quick to also admit, was similar to the faith in miracle cures in Europe.

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