African American Slave Medicine

January 08, 2015

Common diseases of the time. The migration of Europeans and Africans to North and Central America introduced new diseases to the regions. Bewell wrote, “An essential aspect of disease during the colonial period was that it affected different populations differently because people from different parts of the world would have been previously exposed to different pathogens.”

For example, the Europeans introduced influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, and the plague, as well as potent alcoholic beverages and firearms, to African American and Native American populations with devastating effects. While Africans had some immunity to smallpox, even so, the spread of smallpox was so prevalent that Louisiana authorities quarantined slave-bearing vessels from Africa and the West Indies. White populations had developed some degree of immunity to influenza, tuberculosis, and the plague that Africans and Native Americans lacked. African Americans were particularly susceptible to bacterial pneumonia. Likewise, Byrd and Clayton wrote, “The slave trade transported malaria and yellow fever to the new world.” African populations had developed a degree of immunity to diseases such as yellow fever, leprosy, and malaria. The yellow fever disease would have more devastating effects on Whites than Africans because Whites lacked any immunity to the disease. The picture becomes more complicated; when indigenous populations are considered with their exposure to different diseases and a relative degree of immunity. The Native American groups also exposed these immigrant populations to local illnesses and diseases. Each population’s response to pathogens differed depending on their origin, resulting in some communities faring better than others, depending on the type of disease.

The high morbidity rates for slaves can be associated with many factors, including disease. Poor diets of Whites and slaves made them susceptible to nutritional deficiencies such as pellagra (niacin deficiency), riboflavin deficiency, and starvation. Byrd and Clayton wrote, “High mortality rates for Black slaves were associated with dysentery, typhoid fever, cholera, hepatitis, and worms.” These diseases are related to poor sanitation and living conditions. Specifically, typhoid epidemics occur primarily because of contaminated water, typhus from body lice, measles, mumps, and chickenpox from poor living conditions, such as reduced ventilation and damp dirt floors.

African American Slave Medicine

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