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  • Islands, Epidemics and Local Knowledge May 30, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    germ spread

    Human beings have immune systems. These immune systems are supposed to protect us from illnesses. Usually the immune system is up to the job, but every so often a new virus comes along that can skip around all defences with fatal consequences. The ‘new’ Black Death, for example, killed perhaps a third of medieval Europeans on its first sweep through the continent in the fourteenth century, but on subsequent visitations death numbers fell to 20% and below. The more isolated an area, the more likely it will be that a virus will be ‘new’ and the higher mortality will climb. There is no better testing ground for this thesis than island populations, which in Europe in antiquity and the middle ages were sometimes isolated or at least insulated from outside contact for generations. Whether it is the plague in Iceland in the early fifteenth century, chicken pox in the Faroes or small pox in the various Pacific Islands among hunter gatherer populations the figures for mortality are shockingh. In the Society Islands, for example, about half of islanders over sixty died from Spanish flu in 1918, while fifty not thirty percent of Icelanders may have died from the Black Death in 1402. A good general rule: the earliest epidemics are the worse and ‘decimate’ does not start to do justice to what these killings do to unprotected populations.

    Everything in the paragraph above is well known. But what was new to this blogger was that some islanders seem to have understood the fatal consequences of outside visitors and to have absorbed these consequences into their island mentality: for a previous post on the island mentality follow  link. I was alerted to this by a newspaper article from 1887 where it was revealed that the folk of St Kilda (small Scottish island) associated deaths  with visitors coming from outside: they referred, in fact, to ‘boat cold’ and ‘stranger cough’, a sensible term ridiculed by the sententious copy writer.  Again there is nothing strange about such an attitude: islanders far more than continent-dwellers will have been able to measure the arrival of new diseases. But are there other examples of islanders being chary about sick outsiders? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com A fascinating case is the famous multiple sclerosis ‘epidemic’ on the Faroes in the second half of the twentieth century. There is certainly a strange cluster of this neurological condition in the post war period on those north Atlantic islands. One explanation is that British soldiers (or according to one famous paper their dogs) brought a virus that somehow triggered the condition among the locals. Others disagree with this analysis and note problems of perception and chance.