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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

No. 372: Smallpox Epidemics: Part One

Many historians now estimate that, at the time when European explorers first came to North America, there were between one and two million Aboriginal people living here.

But by the mid-1800s - just three centuries later - that number had shrunk to barely more than a hundred thousand.

As historian Michael Payne relates, the most important reason for this dramatic decline in native population was the introduction of Old World diseases to the New World.

The reason for this is that Europeans were kind of the mode of transmission of these diseases. But Europeans had regular contact, through trade, between the populations of Europe and the populations of Asia and Africa as well. So those three continents represented one population pool of people who essentially shared their diseases.

So, inadvertently, the process of the Europeans crossing the ocean and exploring the New World and coming into contact with the peoples of the New World, they introduced iron pots, knives and guns, but also a fair amount of viral and bacterial material, as well.

These included childhood diseases such as measles, scarlet fever, and mumps. But by far the most devastating to Aboriginal people was smallpox.

Smallpox is a very virulent disease. It produces very high mortality rates. It affects people very quickly. People break out in spots.

And, essentially, Europeans had developed a kind of experience, if you like, with this disease. What happens is that it very rarely kills everyone in a population, and the people who survive develop a degree of immunity to the disease, and that immunity gradually builds up in communities, so that infections of smallpox and very many other diseases actually decline in virulence over time. But the first time they hit populations, they tend to produce the highest levels of mortality.

The earliest outbreaks of smallpox in the Americas date back to the 1520s. But the first known outbreak in the West was recorded by the La Verendryes, in the winter of 1736.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.

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