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The Story of South Africa's Five Most Lethal Human Diseases

Howard Phillips

Publication Year: 2012

This is the first history of epidemics in South Africa, lethal episodes that significantly shaped this society over three centuries. Focusing on five devastating diseases between 1713 and today—smallpox, bubonic plague, “Spanish influenza,” polio, and HIV/AIDS—the book probes their origins, their catastrophic courses, and their consequences in both the short and long terms. The impacts of these epidemics ranged from the demographic—the “Spanish flu,” for instance, claimed the lives of 6 percent of the country’s population in six weeks—to the political, the social, the economic, the spiritual, the psychological, and the cultural. Moreover, as each of these epidemics occurred at crucial moments in the country’s history—such as during the South African War and World War I—the book also examines how these processes affected and were affected by the five epidemics. To those who read this book, history will not look the same again.

Published by: Ohio University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 5-6


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pp. 7-8

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pp. 9-12

Epidemics – the unusually high prevalence of a lethal human disease1 in a town, country or region – loom small in accounts of South Africa’s past, almost in inverse proportion to the anxious attention they attracted while they raged. In part this is because, until quite...

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1. Smallpox, 1713–1893: ‘There are no people left, only stones’

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pp. 13-37

As a natural preventive against infectious disease, isolation is beyond compare. Epidemiologists believe that until humans began to establish towns in the ‘Old World’ of the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean...

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2. Plague, 1901–1907: ‘The dreaded disorder’

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pp. 38-67

If the movement of human beings was central to the spread of smallpox, the mobility of this species was of only secondary importance in the first epidemic to strike the subcontinent in the 20th century, plague. This is because plague is primarily a disease of rodents...

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3. Spanish flu, 1918–1919: ‘It threatens the existence of the entire race’

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pp. 68-93

Three hundred thousand (or 6 per cent of the population) dead in six weeks; tens of thousands of wives and husbands turned into widows or widowers virtually overnight; hundreds of thousands of orphans...

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4. Poliomyelitis, 1918–1963: ‘The middle-class plague’

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pp. 94-110

One of my earliest memories is of being marched to a gloomy church hall near my primary school in Cape Town in 1955 or 1956 and waiting very apprehensively in a queue to be inoculated by a tall woman dressed in white. That I can recall little else about this episode...

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5. HIV/AIDS, 1982–: ‘A catastrophe in slow motion’

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pp. 111-151

In two fundamental ways HIV/AIDS differs from the deadly epidemics already dealt with in this book. Firstly, as I write this in November 2011, it is still under way, quietly claiming over 500 lives per day. This...

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6. Conclusion

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pp. 152-154

As the five chapters of this book make clear, epidemics have at times been decisive in shaping South Africa’s history at both the public and private level. Either as creators of new scenarios or accelerators of existing processes and trends, their significance is apparent to...


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pp. 155-165


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pp. 166-168

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444429
E-ISBN-10: 0821444425
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821420287
Print-ISBN-10: 0821420283

Page Count: 156
Publication Year: 2012