Disease outbreaks are fairly rare and, when they do happen, are often overstated. In recent years, there has been plenty of handwringing and worrying over bird flu, swine flu, and other diseases. However, the fame of swine flu may be due more to the need to fill the 24-hour news cycle than anything else.
Nevertheless, there have been some serious disease outbreaks in U.S. history. Learn about the 10 worst outbreaks to threaten the United States.
The first truly terrible disease outbreak came to America with the first Europeans. While smallpox has been around for thousands of years, European settlers first brought smallpox to North America in the 1600s. In 1633-1634, the disease swept through the Northeast, wiping out entire Native American tribes.
Native populations in New England are thought to have plummeted by over 70 percent due to this outbreak (Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, 2012). According to the Centers for Disease Control, the last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949 (CDC, 2009).
In 1793, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital and its busiest port. That summer, a group of refugees from the Caribbean Islands brought Yellow Fever with them to Philly. Conditions were perfect for mosquitoes, which helped spread the disease that causes yellowing of the skin, fever, and vomiting of blood clots. People fled the city—including many signers of the Declaration of Independence—but an estimated 2,000 people still died before winter (Harvard University, 2012).
To this day, cholera, an infection of the small intestine, still affects between three and five million people and causes nearly 130,000 deaths a year worldwide (CDC, 2011). However, the last documented outbreak in the United States was in 1911 (Mayo Clinic, 2011).
Before then, there were a number of outbreaks, but none worse than the Second Cholera Pandemic of the mid-1800s. The pandemic began in India, and then swiftly spread across the globe via trade routes. Settlers travelling along the Mormon and Oregon Trails brought cholera to the United States from East to West, killing an estimated 150,000 Americans (Beardslee, 2000).
In 1918, waves of mutating influenza viruses swept through the military lines of the armies fighting in World War I to the civilian population across the globe. What’s commonly referred to as “the Spanish Flu” is a misnomer. Spain was no more affected than any other European country, nor was it the source of the disease.
This flu outbreak orphaned children, closed down schools and businesses, and left the nation without important services because of ill workers. An estimated 675,000 Americans died in a matter of months, and 20 million people died across the globe before the pandemic subsided (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
Polio is a viral disease that affects the nervous system. The first major polio epidemic in the United States occurred in 1916. In the 1940s and 50s, polio outbreaks created frenzy, frightening parents and prohibiting travel from city to city within the United States. Some towns were quarantined to protect the public from affected individuals.
It reached a peak in 1952, when over 58,000 cases were reported, including 3,145 deaths (Salk Institute, 2012). However, the CDC reports, “thanks to effective vaccine, the United States has been polio-free since 1979 (CDC, 2011).”
The Asian flu is a subtype of type influenza virus A—the same type of virus that causes bird flu and swine flu. An outbreak of this virus originated in China in early 1956. It reached the United States by June of the following year.
Luckily, unlike the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Asian flu outbreak was swiftly identified. A vaccine was created and by the winter of 1957, the worst was over. Nevertheless, the Asian flu caused the death of nearly 70,000 Americans before it was completely eradicated (Johns Hopkins, 2006).
Botulism is a serious illness caused by the toxin produced by a certain bacteria, most often in improperly canned foods. In 1977, 59 cases of botulism were linked to hot sauce from a Mexican restaurant that used improperly canned jalapeño peppers (American Journal of Epidemiology, 1978).
While the number of cases was small in that instance, it served as a warning sign: botulism is a preventable disease, caused for the most part by improperly handled food. For 30 years, there were no canned food-induced cases of botulism. Then in 2007, eight people contracted the disease after consuming Castleberry's Food Company brand canned foods (CDC, 2007).
In 1993, one of Milwaukee’s two water treatment plants became contaminated with cryptosporidium, a parasitic disease that causes dehydration, fever, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. About 403,000 became ill, and more than 100 people died, making it the largest waterborne outbreak in U.S. history (CDC, 1994). The cause of the contamination was never found.
Pertussis, known as whooping cough, is highly contagious. Characterized by violent coughing, whooping cough is one of the most commonly occurring diseases in the United States. The Mayo Clinic reports that in the first half of the 20th century, whooping cough was a leading cause of childhood illness and death in the U.S. (CDC, 2000).
Outbreaks have increased since the 1980s, particularly among teens and infants. In 2010, an outbreak in California resulted in the illness of 9,477 and caused the death of ten infants (California Department of Public Health, 2010). This was the biggest outbreak of whooping cough since 1945.
First documented in 1981, the epidemic we now know as HIV began to appear as a rare lung infection characterized by a weakened immune system. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)—the final stage of HIV—is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States among people age 25 to 44 (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2012).
The virus that causes AIDS is passed through blood transfusions or use of needles, sexual contact, or from a pregnant woman to her child. June 5, 2011 marked the thirtieth year of AIDS in the United States (U.S. Department of State, 2011).
The good news is that these types of outbreaks are rare and, in some cases, preventable. For example, make sure your family is up-to-date on their vaccinations and remember to read up on the latest flu season information every year so that you are immunized against the latest flu strains. Also, take food safety seriously. Simple steps in the kitchen can protect you and your family from botulism, E.coli, and more.