Eradication of Yellow Fever in New Orleans

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The mosquito that spreads Yellow Fever

Photo Credit: Annelie Barkema. Tourism Safety Initiative.


Yellow Fever is a virus transmitted by mosquitoes. Due to the sub-tropical climate in New Orleans and its colonial cultural roots, Yellow Fever was a huge problem in New Orleans. This was also because of New Orleans’s port and slave trade operations that allowed the disease to spread rampantly. As a result, this disease was a silent killer in New Orleans’s colonial days.

The Secret – Lady Killer

Yellow Fever is transmitted to humans by the female mosquito bite. The mosquito known for carrying the virus is called, Aedes aegypti. According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the virus is commonly found in sub-tropical and tropical areas of the globe. The only known hosts of the virus are primates and other mosquitoes. In warm tropical climates, mosquitoes are able to breed year-round causing the virus to be more prevalent and able to live longer. Yellow Fever causes symptoms of fever, nausea, headache and muscle pain usually in the back area. In most cases, the virus leaves the body after several days, but in some cases it causes liver damage, which can lead to death. Due to the increased bleeding caused by the disease, it is categorized as a hemorrhagic fever. It is interesting to note the word “yellow” used in the term Yellow Fever comes from the jaundice that sometimes affects people due to the resulting liver failure caused by the disease, which often turns their skin a yellow pigment. [1]

History of Yellow Fever in the Gulf South

Yellow Fever was particularly prevalent in Gulf South in the 1700s and 1800s. In 1878, for example, the entire Mississippi valley was affected by Yellow Fever. The tropical disease eventually stretched from New Orleans all the way up to Memphis and was also found in other port cities. During that year, there were 120,000 recorded people affected in the Gulf region by the disease, and 20,000 of the recorded cases ended fatally. This was by far the most destructive Yellow Fever outbreak for the Gulf region. [2]

Overall, Yellow Fever killed more than 40,000 people in New Orleans between the years 1817 to 1905. [3] It is commonly believed that Yellow Fever first came to America aboard a ship from Africa in the 1700s, due to the slave trade. It was also believed at that time that African-Americans were immune to the disease, so many made African-Americans responsible for taking care of the sick in the city during major epidemics. While 1817 was the first recorded year of someone contracting Yellow Fever, it is very likely the disease was already in New Orleans before that time. New Orleanians were not fully able to understand how to prevent and/or stop Yellow Fever. In 1853, New Orleans experienced an unprecedented year of growth of cash crops. The city was full of people buying cotton, which was the largest production hub in the United States. The excitement and the joy quickly ended in the summer of 1853 when a Yellow Fever epidemic broke out, killing 7,848 people. As a result, 1853 was the largest Yellow Fever epidemic to date in the city as stated in the Times Picayune newspapers article. Due to favorable sub-tropical weather all year long, New Orleans was able to grow many cash crops, but due to an unusually warm winter, the mosquitoes were able to breed all year long. [4]

Another outbreak took place in 1857 when Yellow Fever took the lives of more than 4,840 New Orleanians. They began holding ships for three days at ports before unloading any cargo to ensure Yellow Fever was not on the boat and surprisingly this tactic was a great success. New Orleans also tried methods to control the disease by burning tar, believing it would purify the air. A cannon was also shot in the air, thinking the vibrations would shake the disease out of the air; but this method was only used once. [5]
New Orleans’s residents’ inability to get clean water was another major issue pertaining to Yellow Fever. Traditionally, city residents would put out large iron or wooden cylinders to collect rainwater for drinking. This caused a significant problem, as still water is the perfect place for mosquitoes to lay their eggs. [6] Since the majority of New Orleans’s land is under sea level, New Orleans is at risk of flooding from the Mississippi river and Lake Pontchartrain. The city is also prone to significant rainfall, which is also a factor in why Yellow Fever was so prevalent in the city. New Orleans gets 64 inches of rainfall on average each year, making it the third wettest city in the United States. Louisiana is also one of the third wettest states. In the 1800s, most of the residential housing was raised up since flooding of the streets was so common, but problems with standing water still persisted. [7]

Global Effort to eliminate Yellow Fever

In 1909, William C. Gorgas stated that Yellow Fever could be eradicated, meaning the disease as a specific entity could be eliminated. In 1915, an effort began to eradicate Yellow Fever from the entire globe. In 1928, when Brazil’s capital became re-infected with Yellow Fever, a dispute broke out over the programs used for eradicating Yellow Fever, and the United States decided that all communicable diseases, such as Yellow Fever, should be entrusted to local health units, not large organizations. United States health officers were trained to be satisfied if they reduced the infection of Yellow Fever to a low level. The 1930s were a breakout decade for Yellow Fever researchers. Yellow Fever without aegypti, later to be called “jungle, Yellow Fever” was found in Espirito Santo, Brazil. In 1955, UNICEF and the World Health Organization approved that Yellow Fever was a worldwide issue that must be tackled together. The United States did not participate in the global eradication of A. aegypti. The only special program that the United States had for the eradication of Yellow Fever is the Malaria Control for War Areas (MCWA), which was created during WWII. There was no organization for Aegypti Eradication for Peace Areas (AEPA). Due to the global community, it is essential all neighboring countries join together in order to be successful in the eradication process. The United States is the only country that refuses to join in the America’s fight against Yellow Fever, which keeps the cycle of Yellow Fever unending. [8]

What Yellow Fever looks like Today

Today, Yellow Fever is still common in Latin American countries and Africa. The Yellow Fever vaccine was placed on the market in the 1950s as part of many World War II developments. Following the war, 34 million vaccines for Yellow Fever were given. Due to the huge success of the Yellow Fever Vaccine, the International Health Division changed its financial priorities from the growth of public health institutions to scientific research. [9] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that the insecticide, DDT, was invented during World War II to help protect our military troops but the amount was reduced after the war due to evidence that it was harmful to humans, animals, and plants. [10] Other reasons for numbers decreasing in New Orleans are due to better water drainage and city-controlled mosquito sprayers. Additionally, public understanding of prime times to be bitten by mosquitoes and how to avoid them has developed. [11] While there is no defined treatment for Yellow Fever today once it is contracted, it is possible to treat the symptoms individually such as respiratory failure, fever, and dehydration. Similarly, the bacteria infection can be treated with antibiotics. However, in poorer counties such as Latin America and Africa, the resources to help treat these symptoms are usually limited and sometimes not available at all. While we know that Latin America, African, and a few cities in the United States are considered at-risk cities for contracting Yellow Fever, we are able to assume Asia is another country that should be considered at-risk, even though the disease has never been reported there. We can assume Asia is at risk because the sub-tropical climate required to contract the disease is present there. [12]

New Orleans has been able to control Yellow Fever through modern technology such as the vaccine, better drainage systems, and city-controlled mosquito spraying. Due to our past culture and climate, Yellow Fever was a huge issue for New Orleanians until recently.

Works Cited

  • “Yellow Fever.” Centers for disease control and prevention. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • Bloom, Khaled J. “The Mississippi Valley’s Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.” Louisiana State U. Press, 1993. Print.
  • Gains, Lea. “Yellow Fever Deaths in New Orleans 1817-1905.” New Orleans Public Library. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • Perry, Sean M. “Yellow Fever Epidemic in New Orleans, 1853.” Lafayette Cemetery Research Project. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • “1853: Terrifying Yellow Fever epidemic hits New Orleans.” The Times Picayune. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • “1853: Terrifying Yellow Fever epidemic hits New Orleans.” The Times Picayune. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • Thomas, Andrea. “Studies reveals top 10 wettest U.S. cities.” Live Science. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • Soper, Fred L. “The Elimation of Urban Yellow Fever in the Americas Through the Eradication of Aedes Aegypti.” Elimination of Urban Yellow Fever. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • “Yellow Fever.” Rockefeller Foundation. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • DDT, a Brief History and Status.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pesticides: Topical and Chemical Fact Sheets. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • “Yellow Fever.” Centers for disease control and prevention. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
  • “Yellow Fever.” World Health Organization. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.

This page was last modified on 01 August 2013, at 08:17


1853 Yellow Fever Epidemic

Uptown, New Orleans

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