19th Century House in Buenos Aires
Those who could afford it fled from the city to the camp to avoid the ravages of the disease. Rapacious landlords in the camp charged vast sums of money for accommodation, food and transport. However there were many, especially the poor, who couldn't leave. As the municipal government had also fled the city, an official Comision Popular was set up to organise relief, but found itself unable to cope with all the demands made on it. In order to alleviate the distress of the poorer members of the British community, H. G. MacDonnell, Chargé d`Affaires at the British Legation, took it on himself to organise assistance. He contacted the various clergymen of the Anglican, Presbyterian and Irish Catholic communities, and along with a newly arrived doctor co-opted for the purpose, set about providing medical and financial assistance to those in need.
This site attempts to tell the story of those distressing times using eyewitness testimony.
|The Disease||Dramatis Personnae|
The causes and nature of the yellow fever epidemic in Buenos Aires of 1871
were not understood at the time. This viral disease was probably not endemic
to the River Plate region, but introduced by arriving immigrants, who had
travelled through a tropical climate such as Brazil, to reach Argentina.
The true reservoir of the yellow fever virus is the mosquito, ensuring transmission from year to year through its infected eggs. The disease is transmitted by a biting mosquito both to monkeys and humans, and then between humans. The virus remains silent in the body during an incubation period of three to six days. Then the first acute phase begins, normally characterized by fever, muscle pain, headache, shivers, loss of appetite and nausea. After three to four days most patients improve and their symptoms disappear. However, 15% enter a toxic phase within 24 hours. Fever reappears and several body systems are affected. Half of the patients in the toxic phase die within 10-14 days. The remainder recover without significant organ damage.
In 1871 the steamer journey from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires was generally six to seven days, the ideal incubation period. So should a person arrive in Buenos Aires having already been infected through a mosquito bite, he could immediately become a carrier. Large epidemics would occur when migrants introduced the virus into areas with a high human population density. Domestic mosquitoes then carried the virus from person to person. These outbreaks tended to spread outwards from one source to cover a wide area.
This describes the nature of the spread of yellow fever in the period March to May 1871 in Buenos Aires. But in those days medical science had not yet realized the role of the mosquito in transmitting the virus. It is notable that the 1871 epidemic ceased in mid May, coinciding with the onset of colder weather and the approach of winter. The mosquitoes were no longer about.
There is no specific treatment for yellow fever. Dehydration and fever can be corrected with oral rehydration, salts and paracetamol. Intensive supportive care may improve the outcome for seriously ill patients, but is rarely available in poorer, developing countries.
A safe and effective vaccine against yellow fever has been available since 1939, and since then at various times whole populations have been vaccinated. The virus remains present in the environment. Vaccination is highly recommended for travellers to high-risk areas.
Anyone looking for more information can find it in the Fact Sheet No 100 published by the World Health Organisation upon which this summary has been based.
For a contempory view on the causes of the disease see this
extract from a US Navy report in the archives of the Academy of Medicine in Toronto.
For a contempory view on the causes of the disease see this extract from a US Navy report in the archives of the Academy of Medicine in Toronto.
The first recorded victim was Juana Ceranden, diagnosed at the British Hospital on 14th February.
On 28th March, J.P. Albarricín and J. Güemes commenced publishing a daily bulletin of the epidemic. This was read with some trepidation by those living outside the city, seeking news of friends and relations still in Buenos Aires.
The official death toll was originally given as 13614, later revised to 17,084 but other sources put the toll as high as 26,200. The majority of deaths took place amongst the Italian immigrant community.
The original figures were broken down as follows:
The effect on the population of Buenos Aires was a long lasting dread of the disease. Years later, Robert Greene, an ancestor of the author, Susan Wilkinson, advised his wife, who had contracted jaundice, to stay inside until it had gone for fear of people's reaction.
Yellow Fever wasn't the only epidemic to affect Buenos Aires, there were several outbreaks of cholera in the city, culminating in the outbreak of 1868 which resulted in some 1700 deaths, including 126 from the "British" Community. Charles Derbyshire wrote a brief account of the epidemic in his book, My Life in the Argentine Republic 1852-1894
Her Britannic Majesty`s Chargé d`Affaires at the British Legation in Buenos Aires. He was responsible for arranging medical and financial relief for the British poor in Buenos Aires.
Rev. Michael Largo Leahy
Rev. Thomas Edward Ash
Rev. Francis Neville Lett
Rev. James Smith
Dr. C.B. Greenfield
Dr. John MacDonald
Dr. Nathaniel Hiron
Mrs M.G. Mulhall
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© Jeremy Howat & Graeme Wall 2002