Dysentery epidemic killed many in the 1700s-1800s

In the 1700s-1800s, dysentery was a disease causing many deaths. In fact, in some areas in Sweden 90 percent of all deaths were due to dysentery during the worst outbreaks. A new doctoral thesis in history from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, presents demographic and medical history of the disease.

, or rödsot as it used to be called in Swedish, remains a major problem in developing countries. In the Western world, however, the disease is almost gone. Yet prior to the decline in among causes of death in the 1800s, Sweden was at times struck very hard by the disease, with catastrophic consequences.

'The disease had detrimental effects, but the were significant. For example, 90 percent of all deaths in a parish could be due to dysentery in some years, while nearby parishes were left practically unaffected,' says the author of the thesis, Helene Castenbrandt.

Castenbrandt studied how the disease struck Sweden during the period 1750-1900, with a focus on changes over time as well as regional and local differences. Jönköping County was used as a case study. Besides , she also used parish registers, maps, newspapers, reports from medical district officers and other information written down by doctors.

Many historians have described dysentery as a regularly recurring and not very serious disease. and are often described as the most devastating epidemic diseases of that era. But Castenbrandt's results beg to differ.

'My study points to dysentery as very epidemic in nature. The disease struck communities extremely hard at times. It flared up quite irregularly and the patterns of transmission differed from one outbreak to the next.'

Using Jönköping County as an example, the study clearly shows the vast differences in dysentery mortality within the same county. The pattern of transmission for the three most severe outbreaks in 1773, 1808 and 1857 shows that although the disease spread across almost the entire county, there were some clusters with extremely high mortality. However, the hardest hit parts of the county varied.

The thesis also analyses the reasons behind the presence and disappearance of the disease. The results point to complex links between possible explanations such as sanitary conditions and population concentrations for example in connection with wars.

'It is likely that many factors interacted, which makes it difficult to identify one single reason why dysentery emerged and disappeared. I hope future studies will be able to explore these links,' says Castenbrandt.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Sweden E. coli cases rise to 39

May 30, 2011

The number of E. coli poisoning cases in Sweden rose to 39 on Monday, 15 of which are serious, health officials said.

Recommended for you

Thyroid disease risk varies among blacks, Asians, and whites

12 hours ago

An analysis that included active military personnel finds that the rate of the thyroid disorder Graves disease is more common among blacks and Asian/Pacific Islanders compared with whites, according to a study in the April ...

The key to easy asthma diagnosis is in the blood

15 hours ago

Using just a single drop of blood, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers has developed a faster, cheaper and more accurate tool for diagnosing even mild cases of asthma.

Younger adults hit hardest this flu season

17 hours ago

(HealthDay)—The H1N1 flu was the predominant influenza strain in the United States this year, but it packed a lot less punch than in 2009 when it caused a worldwide pandemic, health officials report.

User comments