Throughout history, people have gotten sick. But the only information we have about these illnesses comes from modern researchers piecing together the evidence - bones, art and the occasional description of illness in an old manuscript. But in China, community records have been kept for millennia and in those records are a history of epidemics.
There has been a tradition
in China for people to write the story of the places where they lived. Scribes
and clerks wrote about everyday life, as well as about unusual occurrences
weather, crop failures or successes, wars and migrations. These records were
kept for more than two thousand years, from one ruling dynasty to another.
Recently epidemiologist Alfredo Morabia from Queens College in New York started poring through these journals. He found they also contained information about illnesses and epidemics that occurred. Mr. Morabia said:
And then, during the last dynasty of the Manchus, the Qing Dynasty, they wrote a huge encyclopedia. And in this encyclopedia they also synthesized the dynastic history. So you have in China you have a source of centralized information on the major epidemics throughout the Chinese empire which was from more or less, 200 [B.C.E.] to 1911, our era.
The records don't describe
what the epidemics were, just when they happened, and how many people were affected.
Morabia says for well over a thousand years, there might have been three or
four epidemics in a century, but that was it.
So most of their life was free of major epidemics. They were there, but people could live a whole life without experiencing one.
At that time, the population was relatively small, and people lived in isolated communities, among which there wasn't much interaction. That changed around the 12th century. Morabia stressed further:
And by then, for a series of reasons, the population started to expand very fast. Very rapidly. And when the demographic growth starts, you have the simultaneous growth of the frequency of outbreaks.
Morabia traced this increase
in outbreaks to increasing population AND to the fact that people were living
in closer proximity to animals. He says it was these factors that helped spread
disease from animals to humans and back again.
He explains that in past centuries, traditional healers and doctors didn't make a connection between one ill person and another. They believed that if a person got sick, it was an isolated problem, even if there was an epidemic raging around them.
Morabia said it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that European doctors and, later, scientists, were able to understand about epidemics, their dynamics, and, subsequently, how to prevent them. And the Chinese data show that was the case in Asia as well.