Infection Control 600 Years Before the CDC

Modern health authorities combating the Ebola virus in West Africa might look into the past for inspiration.

During the medieval period and into the early 20th century, plague—The Black Death—was a feared and incurable infection, spreading rapidly through Europe along trade routes. As a result, authorities in port cities through the ages were especially vigilant in devising protocols for surveillance and quarantine.

Some of the earliest descriptions of the Black Death come from the Roman trade city of Pelusium, in Egypt A.D.542. In distressing commentary that could have been written about Ebola last week, Roman witnesses described how the plague hit everywhere, leaving streets deserted and bodies unburied for days. 800 years later, when the plague hit Europe in strength, health authorities were better prepared. Some of the basic precautions that were absent during the early days of Ebola were in place. These included a professional health corps specifically assigned to monitor incoming ships in Venice, an idea which would eventually lead to the World Health Organization.

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