From JAMA "100 Years Ago" (a regular feature):
Medical men long have wondered at the inconsistencies of the popular dread of epidemics. People and newspapers became hysterical a few years ago over a score or two cases of Asiatic cholera on the seaboard, while around their offices and homes thousands suffered and died from tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea and typhoid. The small but new enemy seemed infinitely more terrible than the great but familiar ones. . . . The newspapers of August 11 presented a dramatic example of the same peculiar mode of thought. New Orleans reported a total to that date of 756 cases of yellow fever, with a total of 129 deaths, nearly all the mortality being among the Italians. New York reported up to August 5, 1,496 cases of typhoid, with 395 deaths, many of them among Americans of the better class. Think of the fright, brutality and migration inspired by the smaller figures as compared with the virtual indifference that meets the greater ones! Yet we know that, apart from popular apathy, it is easier wholly to prevent typhoid in the North than yellow fever in the South. Uncontaminated water and food insure freedom from epidemic typhoid, while the prevention of yellow fever necessitates the destruction of myriads of insects as well as the absolute isolation from the mosquitoes of every case of the disease during the first three days of fever. Verily man is yet an illogical animal.
Yes yes, it's amusing that they distinguish between Italians and Americans of the better class. But what's even more amusing is how nothing has changed. The public health news this year in my local birdcage liner has been dominated by the following stories:
- West Nile Virus. There have been no cases in the state this year but there have nevertheless been several articles about mosquitoes that have tested positive, the latest research news, etc.;
- A rare, normally harmless virus that affected three recipients of organ transplants, who were of course immunocompromised. It was ultimately traced to a pet hamster owned by the organ donor (who died of completely unrelated causes) leading to mass hysteria about hamsters and gerbils;
- A medical intern diagnosed with tuberculosis, who didn't actually infect anybody but possibly could have;
- A couple of kitchen workers diagnosed with Hepatitis A, a completely curable disease. The hysterical coverage caused dozens of people who had never eaten in the restaurants to line up for vaccinations.