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The Diseases That Columbus Brought With Him

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

After landing on an outlying island, Columbus quickly found his way to Hispanola with its large population of Native Americans.

After landing on an outlying island, Columbus quickly found his way to Hispanola with its large population of Native Americans.

Medical Reality in 1492

In 1492, there was almost no understanding of how diseases could be transported from one person to another much less from one continent to one that lay on the other side of a large ocean. Furthermore, there was almost no comprehension of micro-organisms and what role they might play in the spread of diseases. Another factor that contributed to mass outbreaks of sicknesses was the lack of cleanliness, along with the lack of understanding of how poor personal hygiene might aid the transmission of communicable diseases.

During the 15th and 16th centuries disease transmission was often associated with spiritual impurity, moral decay or the work of evil forces. Only as the Renaissance era came to be in Europe, did Western man begin to discover some understanding of how diseases evolved and spread. In these years, scientific inquiry was just beginning and over time the new process would lead to many medical breakthroughs. One of the major developments of these years, which led to many medical insights was the advent of the autopsy.

Seafaring watercraft in 1492 differed significantly from previous ships.

Seafaring watercraft in 1492 differed significantly from previous ships.

Advanced Ship Technology Advances the Spread of Disease

One of the reasons the Vikings did not spread many diseases to the New World was that their open-hulled ship design exposed the entire ship's hull to the rugged elements of the North Atlantic. Disease could still pass from one infected person to a healthy victim. This did happen on occasion in both Iceland and Greenland, where smallpox outbreaks occurred in the 1200 and 1300s.

Diseases such as smallpox and measles spread far and wide in the New World causing much misery

Diseases such as smallpox and measles spread far and wide in the New World causing much misery

Diseases Associated with the Early Spanish Explorers

Following is a list of 30 diseases that modern-day scientist believe were either brought to or intensified in the New World by the Spanish explorers. They include smallpox, measles, influenza, Bubonic plague, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, chicken pox, scarlet fever, yellow fever, malaria, Lyme disease, Q-disease, whooping cough, Leishmania, African sleeping disease, dengue, Filaria, Septicemic plague, Schistosomiasis, botulism, anthrax, tetanus, Toxoplasmosis, Staphylococci, tapeworms, mycotic disease, Legionellosis and Streptococci. Of all these many ailments, the three that proved to be most deadly were smallpox, measles, and influenza.

It should be noted here that the spread of infectious disease in the Americas was greatly aided by the lack of natural immunity among the indigenous population. Thousands of years of physical isolation made the Native population particularly susceptible to new infections.

This vulnerable situation was exaggerated by the large city-states and their high concentration of residents, especially in Central America. In other words, the high concentration of Native Americans all across the Americas made them vulnerable to new diseases. In the first years of contact, it has been estimated that over 90% of the Native population died from infectious diseases.

P.S. Important Note: Many of the diseases associated with the exploration of the New World did not take hold until after Columbus had passed away. For example, the island of Hispanola did not experience its first smallpox outbreak until 1518.

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Christopher made four voyages to the Americas

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Diseases Brought Back to Europe from the New World

in the 16th century, trade between Europe and the Americas was not a one-way affair. In agriculture, quite a few new commodities were introduced to the European palate. Where would we be today without the Native American contributions of chocolate, vanilla, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, pumpkins, squash, and hot peppers, just to name a few?

Unfortunately, a little bit of the bad came over with the good. In regards to New World illnesses introduced to Europe, the main culprit appears to be syphilis.

The Viking Longboat

This actual viking hull from the Viking Museum in Roskilde, Denmark shows how open to the elements these seafaring vessels actually were.

This actual viking hull from the Viking Museum in Roskilde, Denmark shows how open to the elements these seafaring vessels actually were.

Outbreak in Greenland

Surprising as it may sound, Columbus was not the first European to introduce a new disease to the Western Hemisphere. The culprits, in this case, are the Vikings who in the fourteenth century (the 1300s) introduced a Bubonic plague epidemic to the sparsely-populated island of Greenland, killing off half of the Native population in the process.

However, by all evidence, the disease that did so much damage in Europe did not leave the island. The few researchers, who have studied the outbreak, believe that Native populations in that part of the world in those years were too small and too scattered to support an outbreak on the mainland.

The Viking Disease

The Viking Disease is not life-threatening, but in general, produces a deformity in some of the outside fingers. The uncommon condition is believed to be hereditary among Aryan populations of Northern Europe, especially in places where the Vikings were present during their heyday. As a result, Dupuytren’s disease, or DD, as the malice is sometimes called, is most prevalent in Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Iceland.

Somewhere around 1000 A.D. the Vikings introduced this deformity to the British Isles. Today, the deformity of the fingers can still show up in these places. The worst case scenario produces deformed fingers along with numerous lesions on the hand.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Harry Nielsen

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