• Joan Rothchild Hardin

Staying Well: A Little Sanity About the Ebola Virus – and Other Epidemics

Ebola virus structure. (Source:

As my chiropractor and main health care provider, Denice Hilty, DC, has always stressed, catching a virus, bacterial disease or other illness can generally be avoided by keeping your immune system balanced and strong. This means the whole immune system  – especially the gut microbiome, which bears 70-80% of the responsibility for keeping the whole body running smoothly and protecting us from pathogenic invaders.


Hearing about viral or bacterial infectious diseases that have turned into epidemics or pandemics is of course quite frightening. An epidemic describes a disease affecting a large number of people in a single area. A pandemic is an epidemic that spreads to a much wider area, across geographic areas.




OUTBREAK: Deadliest Pandemics in History is a collaboration between GOOD magazine & Column Five Media. THE SMALLPOX PANDEMIC THAT KILLED 300 MILLION PEOPLE OVER THOUSANDS OF YEARS Smallpox is caused by a moderately contagious virus called Variola major. Initial symptoms began 12 days after exposure. (Fenn, 2003) In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory.   Scientists have found DNA evidence that the virus originated 10,500 years ago. Some 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies show evidence of having been afflicted by the disease. The conquest of the New World was achieved by disease, not by guns or ships, during the decades following Columbus’ arrival in 1492.  The mass deaths during the great smallpox plague in the New World was a profoundly significant, history-changing event. The indigenous people living in the Americas, unlike Europeans, Africans and Asians,  had not had the benefit of co-evolving with the smallpox virus for millenia and these people died in droves from it: perhaps 80-95% of the 50-100 million native people living on this side of the world – approximately the same number as had lived in all of Europe in the late 1400’s.  (Wayne, 2012)

When the Vikings landed in American 500 years before Columbus, they found groups of resilient indigenous people. Fortunately, the Vikings didn’t carry any terrible infectious diseases with them. But then Columbus’ second voyage to the New World (1493-96) brought 1,000 Spanish to settle in Hispaniola. These colonists introduced European epidemic diseases – such as influenza, smallpox, measles and typhus, which spread through the local people in the Caribbean, drastically reducing their population over the next 50 years. The Spanish conquistador Cortes and his men inadvertently brought smallpox with them into the sophisticated Aztec empire in what is now central Mexico. A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes described the destruction he encountered in the Aztec’s capitol city of Tenochtitlán in 1520.  (Wayne, 2012): “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.” The drawing below depicts Nahuas of central Mexico suffering from smallpox transmitted to them by the Spanish conquistadors:


Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex, compiled in 1540. About 30% of smallpox cases ended in death, usually during the second week of the disease. Most who survived the illness bore some degree of permanent scarring. Lip, nose and ear tissue could be eaten away by the virus.  Blindness could result from corneal scarring. The smallpox virus was spread through close contact with the sores or respiratory droplets of an infected person or through contact with contaminated bedding or clothing. A sufferer remained infectious until the last scab fell from the skin. (College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 2014) See this interesting timeline of information about smallpox, from 1000, in China, through 2010, prepared by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The last identified naturally occurring case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977. Throughout history, about 70% of  people who contracted smallpox survived – and apparently not everyone who was ever exposed to the virus became ill. Why? MEASLES (World Health Organization, 2014)


Measles is a serious, highly contagious disease caused by a virus in the paramyxovirus family. The virus normally grows in the cells lining the back of the throat and lungs. Measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children worldwide. In 2012, approximately 122,000 people died from measles. This amounts to about 330 deaths/day, or 14 deaths/hour – mostly children under the age of five. People who recover from measles have lifetime immunity to it.


The measles virus is highly contagious and spread by coughing and sneezing, close personal contact or direct contact with infected nasal or throat secretions.


Being malnourished and otherwise unhealthy increases the risk of contracting measles when exposed to the virus. A strong clue to how to avoid contracting measles in the first place? INFLUENZA PANDEMIC 1918-1919 (Wikipedia, 10/8/2014) Another viral pandemic, the co-called Spanish Flu or La Grippe,  was unusually deadly. Between January 1918 and December 1920 it infected 500 million people world wide, including on remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, killing 50-100 million of them. This represented 3-5% of the world’s population at the time. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history and, occurring during World War I, greatly interfered with the war effort in participating countries. The Spanish Flu was the first of two pandemics caused by the H1N1 virus.

The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. (Source:

Unlike other influenzas, it tended to strike young adults who were thought to be healthy. Modern research, using virus samples taken from the bodies of frozen victims, concluded that the virus kills through a cytokine storm, an overreaction of the body’s immune system. The scientists believe the  strong immune reactions of young adults overcame their bodies while the weaker immune systems of children and middle-aged adults resulted in fewer deaths among those groups.


Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, DC, during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–1919. Again, not every ‘healthy’ young adult who was exposed to this influenza virus succumbed to it. Why? THE BLACK DEATH (BUBONIC PLAGUE)

Black Death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls recently unearthed in London. (Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA) DNA evidence taken from human remains found in a 14th century mass burial site of Black Death victims and unearthed during recent excavations in London found evidence that the epidemic was caused by a contagious airborne bacterium called Yersinia pestis, not by rat fleas as had long been believed. Plague researchers extracted DNA of the Black Death bacterium from the largest teeth in some of the skulls and compared it to the DNA responsible for an outbreak of a pneumonic plague that killed 60 people in Madagascar in 2012. The DNA codes were an almost perfect match. Public Health England scientists say a plague that moved through the population at the rapid pace of the Black Plague couldn’t possibly have been spread by rat fleas biting a diseased person and then biting other people. The speed of transmission could only have been spread by bacteria from the lungs of victims expelled by coughs and sneezes, making Bubonic* Plague a pneumonic  plague. The infection could only have been spread directly from human to human. The bacterial strain responsible for the Black Plague in the Middle Ages was no more virulent than today’s disease. It spread so quickly because its victims were malnourished and ill, with weak immune systems. (Thorpe, 3/29/2014) * Buboes are inflammatory swellings of  lymphatic glands, especially in the groins or armpits. The Bubonic Plague derived its name from this symptom.

“Black Death” derives from the disease’s symptom of death of  tissue, often  in the extremities. The dead, gangrenous tissue turns black.


The Bubonic Plague pandemic in Central Asia and Europe killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people during the Middle Ages. Yet a significant percentage of people who were exposed to the plague bacteria either didn’t become ill or actually became ill from it but then survived. The Black Death arrived in Britain in the autumn of 1348. By late spring of 1349 it had killed 6 out of every 10 Londoners. This means 4 in 10 Londoners were able to survive the plague. The interesting question is why the many survivors were able to resist catching this plague or didn’t succumb if they did become ill with it. RECENT VIRAL EPIDEMICS Here’s a list of some of the more recent viral epidemics and their death toll numbers (Wikipedia, 10/9/2014):

  • Asian Flu of 1957–1958. Death toll: 2,000,000

  • Hong Kong Flu of 1968-69. Death toll: 1,000,000

  • HIV/Aids Pandemic in the Congo Basin 1960-present. Death toll: >30,000

  • Smallpox Epidemic of 1974 in India. Death Toll: 15,000

  • SARS Coronavirus Epidemic of 2002-3 in Asia. Death toll: 775

  • Worldwide Flu Pandemic of 2009-10. Death toll: 14,286