Serendipity: Cholera vs Coronavirus

Lambeth Cholera Outbreak 1848-49

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The following is from A N Wilson’s The Victorians describing the outbreak of cholera in London in the late 1840s.

It was not until the cholera microbe was isolated and identified by Koch in 1883 that [Dr John] Snow’s brilliant hunch—turning to circumstantial deduction—was proved. Snow tried—and [Edwin] Chadwick too—to spread the gospel of cleanliness as a guard against water-borne disease: the creation of good drains; lodging houses for vagrants; public washhouses; quarantine for local visitors. The coal-miners were the group that suffered more from cholera than any other—Snow urged that their work conditions be divided into four-hour shifts so that they did not need to use the coal pits as privies. In parts of London where the classes washed their hands—Belgravia—the rate of death by cholera was 28 in 10,000, compared with 186 per 10,000 in poorer districts. But, of course, such measures could not be introduced without control, and—as in the case with the Irish [potato] famine—the true laissez-faire liberal would, quite literally, prefer death to state interference. [Italics mine]

Serendipity: African Laughter

A Laughing Epidemic Swept Tanzania in 1961

Between 1962 and 1964, there was a laughter epidemic in Tanzania that started in one girls’ school and spread like wildfire around the country. The following is from the How Stuff Works website.

At a small girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), three students started to giggle. Starting and stopping abruptly, their fits would last anywhere from a minute or two to several hours. This “laughter” proved contagious — soon other girls were doing the same thing. No one could concentrate on their schoolwork, and restraining the laughing students proved ineffective. Six weeks later, more than half of the school’s middle and high schoolers had caught the laughing bug.

School officials shut the place down. But when they reopened it two months later, the laughing plague immediately restarted and the school was once again shuttered. The laughing epidemic spread to other schools and lasted somewhere between six and 18 months.

So what caused this? “The bad news is, it had nothing to do with humor. There was no merriment. Laughter was one of many symptoms,” said linguist Christian F. Hempelmann, who researched the incident. He noted that the students also had fits of pain, fainting, crying and rashes.

He blamed excessive stress for the uncontrollable giggles. The boarding school where the laughter began was a very strict one. Plus the country had just gained its independence, and people were anxious about the future. With all of the terrorism in the world today, experts say another laughing epidemic wouldn’t be surprising.

Check out this video regarding the incident: