Yellow fever

Yellow fever is a viral disease that probably originated in Africa- it used to be a big problem in the Caribbean.  It occasionally showed up on the South, sometimes as far north as Philadelphia.  Nobody understood how it was transmitted [ Aedes aegypti mosquitoes] and nobody knew how to treat it.

It was deadly – but it was deadlier to some races than others.  It hit people of European ancestry harder – much harder.  Blacks and whites were approximately equally likely to catch it, but infected whites were far more likely to die.  The case fatality rate was about 7 times higher  for whites than blacks.

This difference is surely a consequence of long exposure to yellow fever among sub-Saharan Africans, particularly in west and central Africa, exposure that selected for resistance to yellow fever. As far as I know no one has discovered genetic variants that protect against yellow fever, not least because  close study of yellow fever is dangerous.  There’s a [ somewhat risky]  vaccine for yellow fever, but I don’t know of any useful protective drugs.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Yellow fever

  1. esraymond says:

    I see what you did there. Summer Glau could not be reached for comment.

    • amac78 says:

      Summer Glau could not be reached for comment.
      Given that this is Greg Cochran’s blog and that you’re a regularly insightful commenter, provisional +1. Before the thread grows stale, I hope you’ll illuminate the connection between infected ‘skeeters and Miranda.

      • esraymond says:

        I was reacting to Pul Rain’s comment”. “Yellow Fever” has a secondary meaning.”

        • JerryC says:

          Yeah, but what does Summer Glau have to do with Asians?

          • esraymond says:

            They made her up to look like Asian hottie on screen.

            • syonredux says:

              “They made her up to look like Asian hottie on screen.”

              Did they? I always thought that she was just a European who looked kinda/sorta East Asian:

              • esraymond says:

                I admit this is deduction on my part, not direct knowledge. Here’s why I think so:

                Glau looked more Asian in Firefly than in her other roles or in propria persona, and given the ‘verse backstory (everybody speaking Mandarin, lot of Western-Chinese admixture in clothing) I thought they cast her and intended her to look part Chinese. As in, specifically Chinese, not just generically Asian.
                The guy they cast as her brother has thick black hair and a touch of bronze in his skin – very plausible Eurasian. I looked at them and thought “half-Chinese hybrid-vigor cases”.
                I have a half-Chinese friend – now a research parasitologist, former model – who looks a lot like Glau. I’ve met other pale-skinned Chinese women with a very similar look which traveling in Asia, notably among the ethnic-Chinese minority in Thailand (and many of those girls are drop-dead gorgeous).

                Even if the Firefly producers didn’t manipulate her appearance, a bit of Google searching will establish that a lot of people think she looks Asian. Thus my original joke; the point is Glau probably knows about yellow fever from the receiving end even though she is, as you say, genetically Euro.

  2. Coagulopath says:

    Yellow fever is a viral disease that probably originated in Africa

    You know what would be awesome? If we could magically edit all ancient documents to insert the modern names of diseases.

    There’s piles of medieval scrolls talking about diseases, and we probably could trace the historical epidemiology of any pathogen you could name…except that they’re all described as “the moste scrofulous lurgy” or something that means nothing to us now. Drat.

    • Thersites says:

      There’s an entry in one of the Irish annals that reads “Pestilentia in aqua Uuiniaus obiit”. An epidemiologist might from that infer a water-borne disease like typhoid, but a Latinist would more likely point his finger at Titivillus.

      • dearieme says:

        Yeah, but was his proposal that we edit works of fiction such as the Irish Annals or genuine ancient documents?

  3. DataExplorer says:

    Is this why there are so few European people in the Caribbean? I always just assumed it was because they didn’t settle there in large numbers.

    • albatross says:

      A lot of the Caribbean is settled by the descendants of slaves brought there to work in (utterly hellish) sugar plantations. But I think the reason it was mainly blacks doing the work had to do with disease resistance–conditions were very bad for everyone, but blacks were more resistant to the tropical diseases than whites or Indians. (I think the local Indians mostly just got wiped out.)

      • syonredux says:

        “A lot of the Caribbean is settled by the descendants of slaves brought there to work in (utterly hellish) sugar plantations.”

        Yeah. The ranking order for plantation slavery in the New World (from least to most inhumane) would go something like this:




        • Frau Katze says:

          I read a book on slavery about the English plantations in the Caribbean. Can’t recall the name but I could likely find it.

          He wrote that the work on sugar plantations was so bad that the slaves were unable to produce enough offspring to replace themselves. This meant continued slave imports.

          The plantations also did the first step in getting the sugar out of the harvested cane, and it was (at the time) quite dangerous.

          The cotten plantation slaves in the US were able to reproduce enough to replace themselves, according to the author.

          • JP says:

            The death rates in Virginia vs West Indies were very different for white people initially people went to both but once it became obvious that the West Indies was a death sentence white people stopped going.
            The labour shortage was addressed through the importation of blacks, the spanish having worked to death the natives who had survived their diseases.
            Until 1807, and the abolition of the slave trade, the economy of the West Indies was little more than a forced labour death camp, working people to death then replacing them with new people. This is the context of the Haitian rebellion.
            Between 1807 and 1837? Conditions for slaves were improved to the extent that the West Indies were no longer run as death camps, because if they had been the islands would have been depopulated and the sugar business destroyed.

        • Craken says:

          American rice plantations never approached replacement fertility levels. They were brutal–much worse than cotton/tobacco. They were also the most profitable plantations in America. “Them Dark Days” is an excellent book on the rice plantations in Georgia and S. Carolina.

    • AndrewS says:

      Black Haitians massacred all the white settlers on the island (with few exceptions). There’s significant Spanish ancestry in both Cuba and Puerto Rico. I don’t know much about Jamaica or the DR, but the remaining islands are small enough for local effects to determine primary ethnicities.

    • Frau Katze says:

      Pretty much. Any account of the French attempt to dig the Panama Canal speaks of the high death rates amongst the Europeans. The man in charge lost his wife and at least one kid. The attempt was abandoned.

      By the time the Americans picked up the project, it had been discovered that it was transmitted by mosquitoes. And they’re fussy mosquitoes. They like still, clean water. A big campaign to cover things like barrel of water was successful. I believe they also had some black workers, from the Carribean.

      See also,

      • JP says:

        Blockade of Porto Bello covered in the book I assume.
        A quote from great naval blunders

        “In 1726 Rear-Admiral Francis Hosier led an expedition to the Caribbean to prevent the Spanish treasure ships sailing from Porto Bello. … The problem was that in 1726 Britain and Spain were not at war and so when Hosier’s fleet arrived off Porto Bello, the Spaniards simply refused to send their treasure ships out to sea. Instead they unloaded the treasure and left the empty ships riding provocatively at anchor, leaving Hosier with nothing to do but wait. From an unhealthy anchorage Hosier chose to blockade the Spanish port – waiting for further orders or for doomsday, as far as he was concerned. From June to December 1726 the only activity aboard the British ships was dying. Most died from yellow fever – ‘yellow jack’ or ‘black vomit’ as it was known to the 18th-century sailor. When his crews had been diminished so far that they could scarcely operate the ships, the dogged Hosier sailed to Jamaica, picked up more men and then returned to his deadly anchorage to carry out his orders. Although the total number in the fleet at the outset equalled some 3,300 men, Hosier managed to lose over 4,000 from disease. Nor were the officers immune. Hosier himself died in August 1727, to be followed by the next in line, Commodore St. Lô, and then after him Rear-Admiral Hopson.”

    • Frau Katze says:

      My ex’s grandfather, sailing out of Liverpool, died of yellow fever off the coast of Cuba, in the early 1930s, leaving a widow and two children.

  4. thesoftpath says:

    Here in Chattanooga a hundred years ago the wealthy families would move up onto the surrounding mountains in summer to get away from it. What was the mortality rate by the way?

    • Craken says:

      The linked paper cites 6 nineteenth century epidemics in America. Mortality was highly variable: 25-72% for whites and 1-14% for blacks.

  5. Thersites says:

    “It occasionally showed up on the South, sometimes as far north as Philadelphia.”

    It even spread as far as the window-seat during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt.

  6. Rich Rostrom says:

    What about Wast Asians, South Asians, Amerinds, and Hamitic Africans? Has anyone measured their vulnerability rates?

  7. syonredux says:

    . ” It occasionally showed up on the South, sometimes as far north as Philadelphia. ”

    The 1793 outbreak in Philly was particularly nasty, killing approx 10% of the city’s population.Charles Brockden Brown (1771 – 1810) used the epidemic in his 1799 novel ARTHUR MERVYN.

  8. Royal Coachman says:

    DDT is a persistent pesticide. It creates super mosquitoes because it sticks around and doesn’t kill all the mosquitoes. These mosquitoes pass this resistance to the next generation and so forth. A good pesticide is one that kills the damn insects and dissipates quickly. They sprayed DDT everywhere and on everything. Contrary to the belief that DDT was banned everywhere that is not the case. It was used in many countries for years and years. The mosquitoes and other insects had already started to develop resistance to the pesticide before it was banned. DDT residues are found everywhere in America and around the world. It has been found in the subtrates of streams and in aquatic insect populations still today.

    Furthermore, some of the resistant mosquitoes of today may have developed some of it due to stuff like DDT. Contrary to the myth by the crazies on the Right that world would have no problems if we just would not have banned DDT which is preached by a group of people who don’t understand basic biology. Also, some studies have shown problems with the thyroid due to DDT, DDT is a chlorinated hydrocarbon and accumulates in fat tissue. Most chlorinated hydrocarbons seem to damaged plasma membranes too. It is still sprayed on the inside of huts and homes in some countries but overall there are better pesticides which kill quicker and do not lead to such resistance. Tropical areas have a continuous cycle of mosquito production and DDT crashed in these areas much quicker than in temperate regions like the US. However, with changing climate patterns allowing mosquitoes moving further “north” we could be in for many surprises. Don’t trust the CDC or NIH to give you the truth because it’s politically incorrect. There is a whole bunch of stuff coming out Mexico and Middle America besides mosquitoes but related to them that no one wants to talk about.

  9. Yellow fever played a significant role in the South’s determination to preserve its “peculiar institution.” I have a bound copy of some volumes of an old southern review from the 1830’s around the house somewhere, and it includes an article about yellow fever. Apparently the incidence of the disease had been constantly increasing since the revolution, to the point that plantation owners believed that it would be impossible to work their lands without blacks who were resistant to the disease. In other words, they believed that the end of slavery meant financial ruin for them because of the disease.

    • esraymond says:

      There were other reasons they imported the Caribbean form of racialized slavery besides Yellow Jack – namely, the weather. Fieldwork in Southern or Caribbean conditions kills off white slaves pretty fast, even before you factor in yellow-fever mortality.

      Blacks adapted to sub-Saharan conditions were a better investment even before they underwent rapid selection for salt-saving (see also hypertension, blacks, higher incidence of). Thus, black slaveowners – a significant minority until shortly before the Civil War, especially in Louisiana – themselves preferred to keep black slaves.

      Since that rising incidence of yellow fever was itself a consequence of the African slave trade, slaveowners were locked into a no-win situation.

      But here is a curious and now often-forgotten fact that might be related to yellow-fever filtering: the racialization of explanations for slavery – as opposed to the racialization of slavery itself – happened relatively late. The racialization of slavery itself was driven by economic forces; the racialization of theories of slavery was purely ideological and, as I read the sources, didn’t achieve its final form until around 1830.

      Before then it might have been taken for granted that blacks were inferior and savage creatures needing the firm hand of a master, but that wasn’t the main pillar on which the justification of slavery rested. It couldn’t be, because memories of a significant slave population of enslaved English and Irish deportees were still historically recent.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Fieldwork in the South isn’t going to kill anyone. I used to unload boxcars of lumber that had been sitting out in the sun – did’t kill me.

        The salt-saving thing is wrong.

        “significant slave population of enslaved English and Irish deportees” – never happened.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Or play six sets of tennis in 100-degree weather, in the forlorn hope that my younger brother would eventually get tired enough to lose.

        • Mr. Frosty says:

          Blacks have a significant and obvious health advantage in Southern fieldwork. Also;

          • gcochran9 says:

            Blacks have significant resistance to African diseases: yellow fever, vivax and falciparum malariaa, hookworm.

            As for 300,000 white slaves imported to America – it never happened.

            • Cloveoil says:

              So what’s your view on this book?

              • gcochran9 says:

                More nonsense. Working off a debt for ~five years is not like permanent slavery for you and your descendants.

              • Cloveoil says:

                Where did the idea of widespread white slavery (by other whites, in the New World) begin?

              • gcochran9 says:

                Some lying son-of-a-bitch. Up there with ‘no guns in colonial America’, ‘few southerners owned slaves’, ‘the Civil war wasn’t about slavery’, ‘Slaves fought for the South’, ‘Western wealth was the fruit of slavery’,’Londinium was chock-full of pickaninnies’, ‘Hitler wasn’t told about the Holocaust’, ‘race doesn’t exist’, ‘soldiers are really reluctant to kill their enemies’, ‘ WMD program in 2003 Iraq’, ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance’, …

                There may a market for the Encyclopedia of Bullshit.

              • Jacob says:

                I have zero doubt that the white slavery meme was a defense against pro-reparations arguments. “We don’t owe the descendants of slaves money/stuff if we’re also descended from slaves.” Weak fucking argument, in part because indentured servants =/= slaves, but that’s not even the worst part. IMO this argument has a baked-in assumption that we might owe them, had we not been in a roughly analogous situation- or else why even point it out? Using the white slavery meme as an argument against reparations implies that there is some context (us not having been ‘slaves’) in which reparations could elsewise have been a good idea. Why should I concede that? I shouldn’t and won’t.

                “western wealth was the fruit of slavery”

                Hey, I’m not sure that’s false. It explains why Whites in Mississippi are so much better off than Whites in Switzerland. Makes perfect sense to me.

        • esraymond says:

          Well, sure – you weren’t in life-threatening conditions because you weren’t working brutally long hours on inadequate food and limited access to clean water. I’m not guessing about this; we have recorded complaints from planters that European field hands often died too fast to be profitable.

          Historians of slavery actually say you’re wrong on pretty much all the related points. Well, except the salt-saving; they don’t have anything to say about that, and I learned of it only a few weeks ago myself from an MD I know.

          The use of English and Irish slaves is well documented. They may technically have been “indentured” rather than chattel but by the 1760s (and probably rather earlier) this had become a distinction without much difference, at least in the South.

          Yes, earlier in the history of the indenture system the indentees had legal recourse against arbitrary punishments. This seems to have changed de facto if not de jure by Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, in which an alliance of blacks and white indentees badly frightened the planter class.

          After that the customary status of indentees converged with chattel slavery. Not quite everywhere – the system seems to have remained less harsh in New England, for economic reasons that seem fairly obvious at least to me – but by 1776 we know that a white indentee could be stocked and flogged over four days for flirting with a servant girl.

          • gcochran9 says:

            Inadequate food would have been nonsensical in the colonies. Malaria is another thing entirely.

            “They may technically have been “indentured” rather than chattel but by the 1760s (and probably rather earlier) this had become a distinction without much difference, at least in the South.”


    • Frau Katze says:

      The complete end of slavery in the the English Caribbean islands in the 1830’s was financial ruin for the owners.

      • syonredux says:

        “The complete end of slavery in the the English Caribbean islands in the 1830’s was financial ruin for the owners.”

        Dunno. They were reimbursed by Parliament, to the tune of 20 million pounds.For example, a fellow named John Austin, who owned 415 slaves, got £20,511, a pretty tidy sum in the 1830s:

        “The biggest single payout went to James Blair (no relation to Orwell), an MP who had homes in Marylebone, central London, and Scotland. He was awarded £83,530, the equivalent of £65m today, for 1,598 slaves he owned on the plantation he had inherited in British Guyana.

        But this amount was dwarfed by the amount paid to John Gladstone, the father of 19th-century prime minister William Gladstone. He received £106,769 (modern equivalent £83m) for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations. His son, who served as prime minister four times during his 60-year career, was heavily involved in his father’s claim.”

        • Frau Katze says:

          The book I was reading didn’t go into detail on what happened to the owners. He said the ex-slaves refused to work for the owners so I assumed they lost everything.

          Thanks for the correction.

        • gcochran9 says:

          But one of Eric Blair’s ancestors did score heavily in this.

          • Frau Katze says:

            Yes, I have been corrected earlier.

            I can’t remember the author’s name. I didn’t keep that book when I moved so I can’t give a reference.

            All I can remember the author saying was that the former slaves had no interest in working for them. I just assumed the plantations would not have survived.

            The fate of the owners wasn’t the subject of the book. He didn’t even mention that they were rich and well-connected, although I suppose I should have guessed that.

          • syonredux says:

            “But one of Eric Blair’s ancestors did score heavily in this.”


            “George Orwell’s great-grandfather, Charles Blair, received £4,442, equal to £3m today, for the 218 slaves he owned.”

            Of course, he’s far from alone. Lots of prominent Brits have ancestors who made a nice profit off slavery’s demise:

            “Among those revealed to have benefited from slavery are ancestors of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, former minister Douglas Hogg, authors Graham Greene and George Orwell, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the new chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette. Other prominent names which feature in the records include scions of one of the nation’s oldest banking families, the Barings, and the second Earl of Harewood, Henry Lascelles, an ancestor of the Queen’s cousin. “

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s