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How Viruses Changed the Course of History



In 1981, The New York Times reported a mysterious disease outbreak. The title: Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals. Three years later, two French research scientists determined the cause of the disease: Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

Today we ask ourselves, why was homosexuality, for such a long time, so rigorously linked with the spread of HIV? After all, science over time disproved these conspiracy theories.

One major clue lies in one word: time.

Take a step back in history. Smallpox and measles viruses have encouraged detrimental cultural and historical outcomes. (The pathologies (effects) of smallpox and measles were difficult to differentiate)

While humans began to populate and “create history” in Europe, these viruses silently evolved alongside them, as Europeans continued to radically reshape their environment.

Fast forward several centuries: when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Europeans had been exposed to these pathogenic viruses for so long, that they had already developed immunity against smallpox and measles.

In turn, this has contributed to the domination of European culture across the world.


During the Age of Discovery (i.e. period of attempts at world domination), the European travelers (somewhat unknowingly) provided their traveling companions - viruses - with the means to enter the New World.

The natives of South and Central America, of course, had not been exposed to the measles and smallpox viruses, causing them to succumb to the diseases. This allowed European cultures to claim dominance in native cultures.

Consider: the true causative agent of smallpox, or measles, or any disease for that matter, was unknown at the time.

It was only 100 years AFTER Columbus monetized America, that the microscope was invented.


The Aztec culture, for example, believed that the arrival of the Spaniard conquistadors and the following events were a superstition come true that Quetzalcoatl or other gods had come to destroy the natives.

Over time, because the Aztec forces were so inversely affected by smallpox (compared to the Spaniards, fighting under the Christian god) they believed that the Christian god was dominant over their gods.

It is disappointing that Europeans knew they could transmit smallpox through direct contact with the disease, and by misusing that knowledge, they purposely weakened the Native American people by secretly infecting them.


Although there is only limited evidence of purposeful infection of the disease, North American colonists appear to have gifted blankets and linens contaminated with smallpox. There is written evidence that these tactics were used during the French and Indian War!

That’s a primary example of biological warfare before it was even a “thing”!!


While smallpox and measles continued to decimate American native cultures, the African slave trade throughout America was justified, maybe even encouraged, by the arrival of yellow fever to the New World. With every shipment of slaves from Africa, came another batch of yellow fever virus.

The colonists, who had already established a racial monopoly in the New World, felt an increased need for the import of African slaves. Colonists soon realized that Caucasians and Native Americans were more susceptible to yellow fever than Africans. They justified their expansion of slave importation with the idea that Caucasians were not fit to work in the fields and mines.

This led to the exploitation of African heritage.

What the Europeans, again, did not know (or did not want to admit), was that Africans, in general, could resist yellow fever infection because yellow fever was commonplace in Africa.


No, I don’t mean Russia.

In Haiti, a French colony at the time, the African slaves began revolting against the colonists. Because Africans could resist yellow fever infection, they were stronger fighters than the French colonists, so Napoleon sent 27,000 French troops to Haiti. Transmitted by mosquitos, the virus quickly decimated the French soldiers, which led to Napoleon’s negotiation with the U.S. to sell the Louisiana Territory.


Viruses have had a much longer history with nature than humans and written history.

Although experts are still struggling to define what constitutes life and whether that line includes viruses or not, one thing is clear:

Viruses are elusive.

They affect biological life in any possible way other bacteria or parasites affect us. Though they need to infect cells to reproduce, viruses have survived the struggles and competition required for survival in this crazy world. Natural selection has allowed only the fittest to survive the rough terrain that we call nature.

Macfarlane Burnet once defined a virus as: “a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein.”

Nevertheless, we must continue attempting to understand viruses and learn how they affect human health and that of our natural ecosystems. Having this knowledge at our fingertips gives us the chance to protect our cultures and native histories. If all the world’s cultures gain access to this true scientific information, it will prevent cultures from otherwise going down the cycle of (potentially self-) destruction.


4. Statistics show that HIV prevalence, although no vaccine or cure exists, has been greatly reduced, as scientists have discovered the mode of human-human transmission. Brilliant scientific researchers have also developed therapies for individuals with HIV to live longer, and more normal lifestyles.

3. Recently, it has been measured that measles, although not completely eradicated, only kills about 0.5 million individuals per year, whereas, during the 1970s, that death rate was near 8 million.

2. Today, the yellow fever virus may be prevented through vaccination and avoidance of mosquito bites in areas with yellow fever. Insect repellents greatly reduce cases of both malaria and yellow fever.

1. As of 1980, smallpox has been completely eradicated, thanks to the efforts of the World Health Organization to enact vaccination programs.


Thanks for stopping by! :)

~Ryen Belle Harran~


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