How New Orleans cured itself of yellow fever
From New Orleans’ founding until the dawn of the 20th century, yellow fever had been regarded as a seasonal malady that, like hurricanes, no one could do anything about. The yellow fever outbreak of July 1905, however, was different. It began in the lower French Quarter and quickly spread to afflict 3,402 people, killing 452, over the next four months. But it also prompted public-health officials — men who had paid attention to Dr. Walter Reed and his colleagues’ discovery in 1900 that mosquitoes spread the disease — to unite to mobilize an anti-mosquito campaign.
Effective controls to wipe out the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads the virus, have made yellow fever a thing of the past in the United States, although health data show there are about 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths each year, chiefly in Central and South America and sub-Saharan Africa. Other outbreaks over the years, while not the plague that yellow fever once was, have proven that Americans need to be on their guard against other mosquito-borne afflictions such as West Nile fever and the Zika virus.
- The virus that triggered the 1905 epidemic are believed to have gotten into New Orleans via a passenger or in mosquitoes that had traveled from Central America in a load of bananas unloaded from a freighter.
- The disease got its name because it attacks the liver, triggering the jaundice that turns patients’ skin and the whites of their eyes yellow. High fever, aches and delirium are common, as is black vomit, which consists of partially digested blood.
- A leader in the 1905 anti-mosquito campaign was Dr. Rudolph Matas, a renowned surgeon who could speak from experience: He had survived a bout of the disease when he was a child during the Civil War.
- Citizens were urged to eliminate the threat of infection by screening windows and cisterns, pouring a layer of oil on water in cesspools and cisterns to kill mosquitoes, and sleeping under mosquito nets. The penalty for not complying was a $25 fine – nearly $680 in 2017 dollars — and 30 days in jail.
- As a reminder of the importance of the cleanup campaign, people wore lapel buttons bearing a picture of a mosquito and this inscription: “My Cisterns Are All Right. How Are Yours?”
- A massive cleanup campaign during the Union occupation (1862-65) eliminated the annual threat because it also eliminated much of the standing water that serves as mosquitoes’ breeding grounds. This came nearly 40 years before Reed and his colleagues had established the mosquitoes’ role in spreading the virus.
- The most notable casualty of the 1905 outbreak was Archbishop Placide Chapelle, who contracted the disease while traveling to churches around the state. He was buried beneath the floor of St. Louis Cathedral, the traditional resting place for local Catholic leaders, but the turnout for the Mass and burial was low because the epidemic was rampant and people were leery of large gatherings.
- The epidemic peaked Aug. 12, when 105 cases were reported. Cases declined steadily as the anti-mosquito campaign took hold; Nov. 8 was the first day when no new infections were reported.
- The outbreak caused so many deaths that Mother Frances Cabrini’s orphanage in the French Quarter quickly filled up and she had to build a new one on Esplanade Avenue. The building became the home of Cabrini High School.
- Although conditions improved by fall, New Orleans needed a way to tell the rest of the world that coming to the city would not be a health hazard. President Theodore Roosevelt did just that on Oct. 26, when he came to the city and spoke at a luncheon in Gallier Hall, where he praised the citizens for their work in battling the scourge.
The 1905 epidemic showed how effective an all-out campaign of information, organization and action can be when citizens, elected officials and medical experts combine to fight a disease. In his New Orleans speech, Roosevelt called their response nothing less than unprecedented and heroic, saying, “They took hold of it after it had started, and when it had got well under way, and they controlled and conquered it.”