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Migration and Disease Previous Next
Digital History ID 3296


Throughout history, the movement of people has played a critical role in the transmission of infectious disease. As a result of migration, trade, and war, disease germs have traveled from one environment to others. As intercultural contact has increased--as growing numbers of people traveled longer distances to more diverse destinations--the transmission of infectious diseases has increased as well.

No part of the globe has been immune from this process of disease transmission. In the 1330s, bubonic plague spread from central Asia to China, India, and the Middle East. In 1347, merchants from Genoa and Venice carried the plague to Mediterranean ports. The African slave trade carried yellow fever, hookworm, and African versions of malaria into the New World. During the early 19th century, cholera spread from northeast India to Ceylon, Afghanistan and Nepal. By 1826, the disease had reached the Arabian Peninsula, the eastern coast of Africa, Burma, China, Japan, Java, Poland, Russia, Thailand, and Turkey. Austria, Germany, Poland, and Sweden were struck by the disease by 1829, and within two more years, cholera had reached the British Isles. In 1832, the disease arrived in Canada and the United States.

Epidemic diseases have had far-reaching social consequences. The most devastating pandemic of the 20th century, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919, killed well over 20 million people around the world--many more people than died in combat in World War I. Resulting in such complications as pneumonia, bronchitis and heart problems, the Spanish Flu had particularly devastating impact in Australia, Canada, China, India, Persia, South Africa, and the United States. Today, the long-distance transfer of disease continues, evident, most strikingly with AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), which many researchers suspect originated in sub-Saharan Africa.

Disease played a critically important role in the success of European colonialism. After 1492, Europeans carried diphtheria, influenza, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, smallpox, tertian malaria, typhoid, typhus, and yellow fever to the New World, reducing the size of the indigenous population 50 to 90 percent. Measles killed one fifth of Hawaii's people during the 1850s and a similar proportion of Fiji's indigenous population in the 1870s. Influenza flu, measles, smallpox, whooping cough reduced the Maoris population of New Zealand from about 100,000 in 1840 to 40,000 in 1860.

Fear of contagious diseases assisted nativists in the United States in their efforts to restrict foreign immigration. The 1890s was a decade of massive immigration from eastern Europe. When 200 cases of typhus appeared among Russian Jewish immigrants who had arrived in New York on French steamship in 1892, public health authorities acted swiftly. They detained the 1,200 Russian Jewish immigrants who had arrived on the ship and placed them in quarantine to keep the epidemic from spreading. The chairman of the U.S. Senate committee on Immigration subsequently proposed legislation severely restricting immigration, including the imposition of a literacy requirement.

Fear that immigrants carried disease mounted with news of an approaching cholera pandemic. The epidemic, which had begun in India in 1881, did not subside until 1896, when it had spread across the Far East, Middle East, Russia, Germany, Africa, and the Americas. More than 300,000 people died of cholera in famine-stricken Russia alone.

To prevent the disease from entering the United States, the port of New York in 1892 imposed a 20 day quarantine on all immigrant passengers who traveled in steerage. This measure, which did not apply to cabin-class passengers, was designed to halt foreign immigration, since few steamships could afford to pay $5,000 a day in daily port fees. Other cities including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, imposed quarantines on immigrants arriving in local railroad stations. Congress in 1893 adopted the Rayner-Harris National Quarantine Act which set up procedures for the medical inspection of immigrants and permitted the president to suspend immigration on a temporary basis.

A fear that impoverished immigrants will carry disease into the United States has recurred during the 20th century. In 1900, after bubonic plague appeared in San Francisco's Chinatown, public health officials in San Francisco quarantined Chinese residents. In 1924, a pneumonia outbreak resulted in the quarantining of Mexican American immigrants. After Haitian immigrants were deemed to be at high risk of AIDS during the 1980s, they were placed under close scrutiny by immigration officials.

Questions to think about?

  1. What factors might make a specific population particularly vulnerable to disease?
  2. In your view should immigrants be viewed as a possible source of disease? Or is such a fear overdrawn?

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