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The Great Fever | Article

Epidemic in New Orleans

Bananas are unloaded at a busy New Orleans port | Library of Congress

In 1905 the final yellow fever epidemic in the United States took place in New Orleans, the city that had seen some of the nation's worst outbreaks. Though the danger of mosquitoes transmitting the disease had been established in 1900, five years later the city was still unprepared.

A Deadly Breach
At the time, New Orleans continued to operate a quarantine system, fumigating ships and sanitizing clothing and bedding on board. In the spring, a smuggler's ship loaded with bananas avoided the quarantine. In June cases of yellow fever began appearing near the Mississippi River in an Italian immigrant community, many of whom unloaded banana boats from Central America. The city declared an emergency on June 22, after 100 people had contracted the disease, including 20 who died.

Breeding Ground
Despite the conclusions of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Board in 1900, many people in New Orleans still did not take the threat of mosquitoes seriously. Residents got their water from wooden cisterns, a breeding ground for the insects. Dr. Quitman Kohnke, the head of the New Orleans health board, beseeched the city to address the mosquito issue. "Even if you are not positive that the mosquito is the only source of the transmission of yellow fever," he told physicians, "give your city the benefit of the doubt in this important and vital matter." After the outbreak began, New Orleans finally mobilized.

A row of water cisterns in New Orleans | Rudolph Matas Medical Library, Tulane University

Attacking the Mosquito
On August 4, local officials asked for federal assistance, and President Theodore Roosevelt assigned Walter Wyman, the surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, to the public health campaign. Workers employed the techniques that had recently proved successful in Havana, another frequent location of yellow fever. They fumigated the city, screened cisterns and destroyed breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Fines were instituted against residents who failed to comply with public health measures. After Archbishop Placide Louis Chapelle died from yellow fever, holy water in St. Louis Cathedral was found with mosquito larvae. The priests emptied the containers. Still, the epidemic was not immediately stopped.

The Last Throes
On August 12, 100 people fell ill from the disease. Yet by September the numbers of victims diminished. Further evidence that mosquitoes transmitted the disease surfaced at Charity Hospital, which reported that no other patients or medical personnel became infected from the approximately 100 cases of yellow fever treated there. The public health campaign to address yellow fever was working in a city that fewer than 30 years before had lost thousands to the disease. October would mark the end of the epidemic, with 452 deaths recorded in New Orleans. The year would also mark the last time a yellow fever epidemic plagued the United States, though the disease remains a problem elsewhere in the world.

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