Ye Olde Historical Epidemics

So. I started this thread on AW today. To reiterate, I’m killing off a character in about twenty pages and I need to decide how she dies.

You see, in draft 2, the death was backstory and I was able to get away with referring to this character’s death as a “sudden tropical fever.” I can’t do that in this draft because her death is a big plot point.

My basic fictional requirements: something quick. Something doctors did not know how to cure. It’s summer 1799 in Barbados, so something tropical will do. My problem is that, as of now, I haven’t been able to find any references on whether Barbados had any kind of endemics or epidemics that year.

My top three choices are:
Yellow Fever
Typhoid Fever

One of the more unpleasant facts of historical fiction is the lack of hygiene and medication available in ye olden days. By the late 18th century, however, there were some preventative measures which were understood, so it wasn’t as if I need to worry too much about balancing the humors or the plague.

When I think of historical epidemics, I think of this:

1. Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever was one of the deadliest diseases in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It’s believed that yellow fever originated in Africa and this mosquito-borne virus particularly thrived in the tropical climate of the West Indies and the American South.

Yellow fever has two stages: the first causes flu-like symptoms and lasts a few days. The second stage is the deadly one, causing liver damage, jaundice and in some cases, internal bleeding which causes the patient to throw up blood. If a person suffers through the disease, but survives, they will have lifetime immunity.

In 1793, Philadelphia had a major yellow fever epidemic. Philadelphia lost thousands of people during the four-month-long epidemic, including Dolley Madison’s first husband.

Yellow fever decimated the French and British troops fighting during the Haitian Revolution and many European and American visitors, because they were not immune. The last outbreak in the United States was in 1905, in New Orleans.

It fits several of my criteria for a quick, tropical, fatal disease. The problem is, yellow fever is highly contagious because, obviously, a person gets bit by a mosquito, gets yellow fever, another mosquito bites that person, carries the virus on to another person…

I only need to kill to one person.

Even today, doctors do not know how to cure yellow fever. There is a vaccine.

2. Typhoid Fever

Typhoid, not to be confused with typhus, is a bacterial disease caused by the eating or drinking of food or water contaminated with the fecal matter of an infected person. It is also possible to be an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, but spread the disease.

Like Typhoid Mary, who may have had typhoid as a girl, but was perfectly healthy. She worked as a cook in New York and spread typhoid to those she cooked for.

Typhoid is easily communicable and I think it demonstrates the time period well, because of the spreading of the disease due to a lack of hygiene and understanding of illness. But it’s not a quick disease–untreated typhoid takes about 4 weeks to reach a deadly stage.

3. Malaria
Malaria is a mosquito-borne, tropical disease. According to the CDC, malaria’s symptoms include chills, fever, and other flu-like symptoms. Malaria has a long incubation period–anywhere from a week to 30 days. Severe malaria results in organ failure.

Malaria was treated with a powdered form of quinine from the 17th century on. Charles II’s malaria was treated with quinine; he recovered. During WWII, the U.S. Army’s supply of quinine was cut off in the Pacific, leading to many soldiers becoming infected with malaria–including my paternal grandfather. Malaria often reoccurs.

These days, though there is no vaccine for malaria, there is the organization Malaria No More, dedicated to ending malaria deaths in Africa by 2015, where malaria is the among the top killers of young children.

My issue in using malaria to kill my character is that there was already a known treatment for it. Unless it progresses so quickly that the quinine doesn’t help?

These are the possibilities I’ve narrowed it down to. But on to you. What old prevalent historical diseases have you used in your stories? 

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