Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria?: Torrid Diseases in a Temperate World

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9780393332643: Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria?: Torrid Diseases in a Temperate World

We live in a medical fool's paradise, comforted, believing our sanitized Western world is safe from the microbes and parasites of the tropics. Not so, nor was it ever so.

Past--and present--tell us that tropical diseases are as American as the heart attack; yellow fever lived happily for centuries in Philadelphia. Malaria liked it fine in Washington, not to mention in the Carolinas where it took right over. The Ebola virus stopped off in Baltimore, and the Mexican pig tapeworm has settled comfortably among orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.

This book starts with the little creatures the first American immigrants brought with them on the long walk from Siberia 50,000 years ago. It moves on to all that unwanted baggage that sailed over with the Spanish, French, and the English and killed native Americans in huge numbers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (The native Americans, it appears, got some revenge by passing syphilis--including Pinta, a feisty strain of syphilis--back to Europe with Columbus's returning sailors.)

Nor have the effects of these diseases on people and economics been fully appreciated. Did slavery last so long because Africans were semi-immune to malaria and yellow fever, while Southern whites of all ranks fell in thousands to those diseases?

In the final chapters, Robert S. Desowitz takes us through the Good Works of the twentieth century, Kid Rockefeller and the Battling Hookworm, and the rearrival of malaria; and he offers a glimpse into the future with a host of "Doomsday bugs" and jet-setting viruses that make life, quite literally, a jungle out there.

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About the Author:

Robert S. Desowitz, a leading epidemiologist, is the author of New Guinea Tape Worms and Jewish Grandmothers and The Malaria Capers, among other books. He lives in Pinehurst, North Carolina.

From Kirkus Reviews:

A fascinating tour through the world of tropical diseases, led by a guide with a lively sense of humor and a keen knowledge of medical history. While most people would prefer to think of tropical parasites and pathogens as inhabitants of some distant world, Desowitz, a specialist in tropical medicine and medical microbiology (The Malaria Capers, 1991), brings them perilously close to home. Malaria he calls ``as American as the heart attack or apple pie,'' and yellow fever once killed one-tenth of Philadelphia's population. It was yellow fever, the author explains, that brought Louisiana into the US, for its high death rate convinced Napoleon that his American holdings were a ``worthless, pestilential sinkhole.'' Of the diseases whose history Desowitz recounts, perhaps the least known is chronic hookworm anemia, a profoundly debilitating illness once epidemic in the American South. In a chapter subtitled ``Kid Rockefeller and the Battling Hookworm,'' Desowitz describes how Rockefeller philanthropy not only transformed the South but led to global anti-hookworm programs. While Desowitz ranges over thousands of years in this chronicle, his concern is the present and the future. In a tale of medical detection reminiscent of Berton Rouch‚, he relates how a group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn--who, of course, shun any form of pig's meat--recently became infected with a pig tapeworm from Mexico. His message is clear: The threat of infectious diseases is ever present. Coming ecological-epidemiological shifts may bring some bad times--global warming creates a wonderful world for insects and the diseases they carry--and our present antibiotic agents have already begun to fail us, Desowitz concludes somberly. He urges increased support for all science, for just as threats come from unexpected sources, so do answers. (For the record, Desowitz believes that Pinta, a form of syphilis, was carried back to Europe by Columbus's crew.) A real-life thriller. (First serial to Natural History Magazine) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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