Monday, July 17, 2006

Not Smallpox After All?

We all know what happened to the Native Americans when the Europeans arrived, don't we? The Europeans brought smallpox with them, and the majority of the Native American population, whether in North, Central, or South America was wiped out. Isn't that what you learned in school?

Well, a recent article in Discover Magazine Online says it "ain't so."

Turns out researcher Rodolfo Acuna-Soto has uncovered pretty reliable data indicating the Native Americans were wiped out by something resembling hemorrhagic fever. Take a few minutes to follow the links and read the article - it is excellent, not too difficult to read, and absolutely fascinating.

Among the interesting paragraphs are these:

There seemed little reason to debate the nature of the plague: Even the Spanish admitted that European smallpox was the disease that devastated the conquered Aztec empire. Case closed.Then, four centuries later, Acuña-Soto improbably decided to reopen the investigation. Some key pieces of information—details that had been sitting, ignored, in the archives—just didn't add up. His studies of ancient documents revealed that the Aztecs were familiar with smallpox, perhaps even before Cortés arrived. They called it zahuatl. Spanish colonists wrote at the time that outbreaks of zahuatl occurred in 1520 and 1531 and, typical of smallpox, lasted about a year. As many as 8 million people died from those outbreaks. But the epidemic that appeared in 1545, followed by another in 1576, seemed to be another disease altogether. The Aztecs called those outbreaks by a separate name, cocolitzli. "For them, cocolitzli was something completely different and far more virulent," Acuña-Soto says. "Cocolitzli brought incomparable devastation that passed readily from one region to the next and killed quickly."

Acuña-Soto sent the text of the original Latin manuscript to a friend, a
physician working with the Centers for Disease Control in Washington, D.C., who was also a Greek and Latin scholar. The new translation he got back described cocolitzli in terms that did not match any Old World disease:

The fevers were contagious, burning, and continuous, all of them pestilential, in most part lethal. The tongue was dry and black. Enormous thirst. Urine of the colors of sea-green, vegetal green, and black, sometimes passing from the greenish color to the pale. Pulse was frequent, fast, small, and weak—sometimes even null. The eyes and the whole body were yellow. This stage was followed by delirium and
seizures. Then, hard and painful nodules appeared behind one or both ears along with heartache, chest pain, abdominal pain, tremor, great anxiety, and dysentery. The blood that flowed when cutting a vein had a green color or was very pale, dry, and without serosity. . . . Blood flowed from the ears and in many cases blood truly gushed from the nose. . . . This epidemic attacked mainly young people and seldom the elder ones.

"This was certainly not smallpox," Acuña-Soto says. "If they described something real, then it appeared to be a hemorrhagic fever."

Hemorrhagic fevers are viral diseases with names that evoke justifiable dread—Ebola, Marburg, Lassa. They strike with sudden intensity,
rarely respond to treatment, kill at high rates, then vanish as mysteriously as they came. They are called hemorrhagic because victims bleed, hemorrhaging in their capillaries, beneath the skin, often from the mouth, nose, and ears. The bleeding doesn't kill, but the breakdown of the nervous system does. At first there is fever, fatigue, and dizziness, but within a few days the person falls into delirium and finally a coma.

If cocolitzli had been caused by a hemorrhagic virus, Acuña-Soto realized, the Spanish could not have brought it with them. Such diseases do not readily pass from one person to another, so the virus must have been native.

This article was published as a Discover Magazine featured article in February 2006. It would seem to be a very significant discovery, with rather broad-ranging implications. Wonder why we have heard nothing about it from the national news media?

(HT: The Common Room)

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