Another Disease Outbreak Catches the Attention of ODU Historian – Who Notices Modern Parallels
June 18, 2020
A disease sweeps a densely populated region. A panicked public looks for answers - and scapegoats. Ultimately, the lesson learned is that disease outbreaks can happen for a variety of reasons, no matter how much care and concern is taken.
Old Dominion University historian Ingo Heidbrink is examining such a disease outbreak, and it is not COVID-19. Heidbrink is part of a team looking at the 19thcentury cholera outbreak in the German port city of Hamburg. Particularly, the team is examining the role of the ice trade in the spread - and containment efforts - of the outbreak, and how the neighboring city of Bremen used contemporary modern science to avoid an outbreak.
Heidbrink is part of an international team researching the "Last Ice Age," analyzing the history of the natural ice trade and its impact on fields such as medicine and fisheries during Europe's Industrial Revolution. He is part of a three-country, $1.5 million study to examine the trade in natural ice in late-19thcentury Northern Europe.
In a blog published for the Norwegian Maritime Museum, Heidbrink suggests there are parallels that can be drawn with today's global pandemic. Hamburg was the scene of one of the last great cholera outbreaks in Europe.
When the outbreak was detected a strict set of measures to stop cholera's spread were implemented. They included closing the Port of Hamburg, closure of schools, a ban on large gatherings and, most importantly, the need for a supply of clean drinking water.
"After the outbreak of the cholera in Hamburg in 1892 the search for the culprit started immediately," Heidbrink said, "and after a while it became obvious that polluted water was the main path of transmission of the disease."
This discovery led to far greater scrutiny of the burgeoning trade in natural ice, seen as importing disease pathogens to a stricken population. The outbreak would ultimately kill more than 17,000 residents.
However, an examination by the researchers of the response to the outbreak shows that the "easy answers" - such as increased impetus to develop artificial icemaking capabilities - "simply overshadowed a more complex reality that even commercial interests might have played a role," Heidbrink said.
While his team is not studying COVID-19, Heidbrink said it is not hard to see parallels between pandemics, particularly in the search for simple answers to life-threatening questions.
Tests at the time of ice made from supposedly "clean" drinking water showed surprisingly high bacteria counts. "These were found to be caused frequently by insufficient hygiene and cleaning of equipment," Heidbrink said.
"Does that sound familiar today?"