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Harsh Realities of Disease

What happens when you get sick? 

Disease outbreaks have impacted the course of human history. The Columbia Exchange brought smallpox to the Americas. Tuberculosis dominated the nineteenth century, but still ravages Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. HIV/AIDS has killed over 35 million people since its emergence in 1981. Not only do deadly diseases hurt individuals, but they also prevent economic growth, leave lasting psychological scars, and stifle innovation. 

Gravestones of Children who Died From Now-Preventable Diseases

Before medical innovations, childhood morality was extremely high. A quarter of babies historically died before reaching their first birthday.


Crowded cemeteries often only had graves of older children and teenagers, as babies died so frequently that they rarely received graves. Because of vaccines and other preventable measures, children are safer than ever before. 

Picture by Chris Pavlich for the Daily Telegraph

Graves of Children Killed by Now-Prevent

"My grandfather lost his father to tuberculosis when he was ten. On the other side of my family, both my grandmother and my grandfather lost siblings to infectious diseases. One family lost a toddler to measles and a teenager to sepsis, and the other family lost a toddler to pertussis and a teenager to tetanus. When my father was a boy, his brother was bedridden for six months with rheumatic fever. He lived, but he suffered permanent heart damage and died young of heart failure."

-Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Inoculation

Polio Patients in Iron Lungs

Children in Iron Lungs During a Polio Outbreak in the 1950s

Polio became common in the twentieth century, with millions becoming paralyzed and dying from the virus. In the summer of 1916, a polio epidemic stifled New York City, and many outbreaks followed.


Jonas Salk and other scientists developed the inactivated polio vaccine, which drastically decreased the virus’s harm. Today, polio has the potential to become the second disease ever eradicated, but outbreaks remain widespread in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Image from the Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

In More Depth: History of Diseases

Still curious about the history of pandemics, illness, and medicine?

This video explores the impact of childhood diseases, polio, and more throughout world history. It highlights how events like the Black Death and Great Dying caused everything from the collapse ​empires to the creation of art. 

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