Several months ago, Mexico shut down completely. Public health officials, concerned about the rapid spread of a new strain of Influenza A virus, closed schools, sports venues, and stopped virtually all public gatherings.
What would Ben Franklin say about such a draconian method of epidemic control?
Here’s what he’d say: We did it all the time.
About a year ago, Mexican health authorities became aware of a potentially fatal new form of influenza that killed a significant percentage of those infected. With the help of virologists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they learned that the causative organism contained genetic material from human, bird, and pig influenza viruses. Without an effective vaccine, Mexican authorities resorted to a measure borrowed from an earlier era: massive public quarantine. Starting in Mexico City, the quarantine was soon expanded to the entire country. The economic costs were enormous. Hotel occupancy in Cancun, for instance, dropped to less than 5 percent. Billions of pesos were lost in the retail, entertainment, and tourism sectors of the economy.
During Franklin’s lifetime, such widespread quarantines were common. Indeed, they were often the only way to contain epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, malaria, and a host of other “contagions,” as they were called at the time.
Moreover, it often fell to Benjamin Franklin to announce such quarantine measures in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, the most widely read periodical publication of colonial North America. In a typical example from the April 22, 1731, issue, Franklin told his readers that the Justices of the Peace in nearby Burlington, Pennsylvania,
“by reason of the great mortality in Philadelphia, and other parts of Pennsylvania, where the small-pox now violently rages…to prevent…the further spreading of so epidemical and dangerous a distemper” prohibited the annual May Fair in their town.
The cause of such epidemics was not known. Some considered divine punishment as the most likely reason, whereas Franklin and his fellow scientists, always looking for naturalistic explanations, assumed that exposure to a toxic fluid created the illness. At the same time, this fluid caused the victim to produce more such fluid, spreading the disease to others. Isolating those suffering from the malady was thus the best way to halt spread.
In a way, 18th-century scientists were correct. A virus is so small that it passes through the finest paper filters, ending up in the fluid that drips into a container below the funnel. Once a virus enters a living body, it takes over the reproductive machinery of target cells, programming the creation of millions of copies of itself.
Therefore, separating sick from healthy to control epidemics makes lots of sense.
In a recent medical journal article, American public health experts commended Mexican authorities for the efficient and remarkably successful way they handled the H1N1 influenza epidemic. In fact, Mexico, by reverting to a strategy developed in the Middle Ages, demonstrated the effectiveness of a nonpharmaceutical way to halt emerging epidemics.
Franklin, who became involved in the study of epidemics after he lost his 4-year-old son to smallpox, would, if alive, lavish praise on what he called “New Spain” for its pioneering reversion to an ancient technique.