News Article

Epidemics That Shaped Mexican History

By Miriam Bello | Thu, 04/30/2020 - 11:27

Going back centuries, diseases have many times determined the course of human life. In prehispanic Mexico, discomfort and disease were a punishment dictated by the gods’ will. One of the strongest diseases that hit Mexico around 1450-1456 was known as the great pestilence and is said to have wiped out the whole population of what is now Tula. Historic data shows the disease killed around 90 percent of the population.

With the Spanish arrival to Mexican territory, many unknown diseases started to take millions of lives in the New World. In 1520, smallpox meant the death of thousands of native people in Tenochtitlan. The number goes around 300,000 victims, which was around 40 percent of the population back then. Moctezuma’s brother Cuitláhuac was among the deceased. Smallpox and measles, were determinant in Mexico’s conquest.

Salmonella was the next strong epidemic dated in Mexico. From 1545 to 1550, it killed around 80 percent of the population. Some historians say that salmonella was the strongest epidemic in Mexico as it killed around 15 million people, but others point to typhoid, which arrived around 1576 and in just three months it had killed already over a million people. Cholera follows in the list of catastrophic diseases. Cholera scaled to be a pandemic as it was fist discovered in India in 1825, then in Europe in 1829 and arrived to Mexico in 1833 where it left 324 deceased.

The first time Mexico experienced confinement, quarantine and massive sanitation of places was in 1902 during the Black Death outbreak that first arrived to Mazatlan. Due to the high morbidity of the virus, thousands of people were isolated, hundreds of homes were sanitized and even burned down and treatments were distributed to the population to control the death toll.

One of the worst global pandemics of all time has been the Spanish flu, which dates back to 1918. Fifty million people died from the disease, 500,000 only in Mexico. The Spanish flu was first found at the US military fields during World War I. Since keeping spirits high was important during the war, authorities preferred to hide the disease from the public. A little later, it was discovered in Spain and the death toll was much higher than what it first was in the US. Since Spain did not hide the existence of the virus, the pandemic is known as the Spanish flu. During this time, isolation and hygiene measures were also encouraged among society. 

Poliomyelitis in the 1950s was another strong epidemic but it could be controlled with a vaccine. AIDS or dengue also started to appear but both of them at a slower rate, which did not make them an epidemic at the time. 

Right before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, in 2009 Mexico faced the influenza AH1N1 outbreak. Originated in Perote, this virus was contained successfully but WHO did declare a sanitary emergency as the disease hit 74 countries around the word. The final statistics for AH1N1 were 1,000 deaths in Mexico and 16,000 around the world.

Science, vaccines, technology and innovation in healthcare have led to better containment of viruses, but it is not always that easy. In a globalized world where we are all connected physically and virtually, the spread of viruses is easier and their impact is wider. We are facing a global pandemic as we have never seen in the past, which means that response from the healthcare system has to be global to overcome the situation.

The data used in this article was sourced from:  
CENAPRED, UNAM, El Universal, El Economista
Miriam Bello Miriam Bello Senior Journalist and Industry Analyst