America’s First Plagues

I wound up studying epidemics when I was given the task of teaching Indians of North America.  The data was limited, but pretty much irrefutable – European diseases, brought by ship to the islands and eastern coast of North America did far more than decimate the native population of the Americas.

By the end of my readings, I pretty much bought into Dobyns’ explanation: “Before Europeans initiated the Columbian Exchange of germs and viruses, the peoples of the Americas suffered no smallpox, no measles, no chickenpox, no influenza, no typhus, no typhoid or parathyroid fever, no diphtheria, no cholera, no bubonic plague, no whooping cough and no malaria.”

His research leads to the conclusion that European diseases race across the continent ahead of the European explorers, killing 80 to 95% of the population.

I settled for that explanation, until Covid statistics started to overwhelm me, then realized, I could take to the internet to find the R0 numbers for each of these diseases – and that those numbers would have been worse for virgin soil epidemics within a people who had no previous exposure.  R0 quantifies a germ’s ability to infect – the R0 for the 1918 Spanish Flu is estimated at 1.4 to 2.8, while the similar 2009 H1N1 was between 1.4 and 1.6.  Simply enough, the larger the R0 number, the more infectious the disease.

R0 for Covid was estimated at 5.7 by the CDC.

The lazy man’s way of capturing the R0 values is wikipedia. It shows:


As I looked at the data – often from Winter counts – I realized that Measles was likely at least as responsible for Native deaths as Smallpox, though the Native records really don’t distinguish. At any rate, the R0 provides a usable measure for understanding the unintended European  plagues had on the Native American populations.  Likewise, the chart lets me look back on my childhood diseases with a greater understanding of how virulent the diseases we encountered in the fifties actually were.

R0 provides a good way of ranking how infectious a disease can be. Wiki also provides a chart for fatality rates of many diseases.

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