During North America’s colonial era, immigrants from Europe and Africa imported many contagious diseases that wreaked havoc on not only Native American populations but also nonimmunized colonists. Successive waves of disease-carrying immigrants during the nineteenth century set off epidemics ranging from cholera to plague, despite ever more effective public health measures, and encountered effective anti-immigrant sentiment and action. During the early twenty-first century, visitors as well as immigrants posed threats to U.S. public health as carriers of new diseases and new strains of old diseases.
Every person and every community lives in an environment filled with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, many of which carry pathogens potentially lethal to humans. People who live for many years in the same area and with the same neighbors develop effective immune system defenses against the commonly occurring pathogens. Sometimes they pass their immunity along to subsequent generations genetically. When a new pathogen is inserted into a community by changes in the environment or the intrusion of new people, the effects may be devastating, as existing members of the community may have limited or no developed biological defenses. Unlike noninfectious diseases such as diabetes or cancer, an infectious disease can be passed among members of a community by the actions of carriers of pathogens. These carriers might include tainted foods or water; insects, parasites, and their droppings; and infected people. During the centuries before germ theory made modern medicine an effective counter to most infectious diseases, there was little understanding of pathogens and carriers, and little that any human community could do to defend against them.
The early history of European and African settlement in the Western Hemisphere provides a depressingly long list of epidemics and pandemics. Many of these occurred on a large geographical scale, sparked by the contact of
Although early immigrants from Europe and Africa tended to share resistance to a wide range of pathogens, later generations, long removed from their homelands and isolated from certain diseases in the New World, tended to lose their natural defenses to the Old World diseases. When new immigrants arrived from the Old World, even from the same cities and regions as the ancestors of second- or third-generation colonists or slaves, their reinfusion of disease-causing pathogens could and often did trigger outbreaks–even epidemics–among the settled immigrants populations. Perhaps ironically, however, this was least likely to occur in large cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, in which steady streams of new immigrants kept levels of exposure and resistance relatively high among the urban populations.
Some imported diseases, such as mosquito-borne
Traditional Western medicine had long associated disease with filth, a lack of basic hygiene, and, by the later eighteenth century, poverty. From the 1820’s, ships from Europe brought trickles and then floods of immigrants from Ireland and central Europe. Many of these people were both poverty-stricken and sick with opportunistic diseases such as
Even due diligence could fail, especially with emerging diseases.
The popular conception of Roman Catholic Irish immigrants as lazy, poor, and disease-ridden was reinforced by the huge numbers of penniless refugees who appeared as the
The fact that a significant percentage of immigrants were Roman Catholic and, to a growing extent, Jewish, as well as poor and suffering from diseases, fed the fears and prejudices of
U.S. Health Service officers inspect Japanese immigrants as they arrive on the West Coast of the United States in the early 1920’s.
Tuberculosis was once widely considered to be a genteel or sensitive person’s disease. However, as it spread among the working classes in large U.S. cities, it became associated with poverty, squalor, and ethnic minorities, and sufferers were rounded up for isolation. A major outbreak in 1892 in New York City led to passage of the
The popular linkage of disease and immigrants remained a major factor in U.S. public policy. Along the
Twentieth century science and technology complicated ideas about the relationship between immigrants and infectious diseases. Medical researchers have found cures or effective treatments for a wide variety of potentially deadly diseases. While Americans generally have access to these, many are beyond the reach of potential immigrants. At the same time, jet aircraft have made intercontinental travel swift and relatively cheap. Visitors and U.S. travelers abroad, as well as immigrants, can and do enter America as carriers of a wide variety of pathogens.
Apostolopoulos, Yiorgos, and Sevil Sönmez, eds. Population Mobility and Infectious Disease. New York: Springer, 2007. Collection of analytical articles on the variety of forms of population movement and the roles they have played in the spread of disease in the early twenty-first century. Duffy, John. Epidemics in Colonial America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1953. Older book that remains the standard text on the causes, courses, and effects of epidemic disease in Britain’s North American colonies. Grob, Gerald N. The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Broad overview that goes beyond imported disease and effects of disease on immigrants to chronic and occupational problems from the colonial era to the end of the twentieth century. Markel, Howard. Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York Epidemics of 1892. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Study of the role of Jewish immigrants in the outbreaks of cholera and typhus, the ethnically based initial responses, and the role of the events in the passage of the 1893 screening and quarantine act. _______. When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004. Chronicle of the historical outbreaks of tuberculosis, plague, typhus, cholera, HIV/AIDS, and trachoma in a very readable set of analytical narratives. Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Study of San Francisco’s large Chinese community that emphasizes the city’s bubonic plague outbreaks and the roles of and influences on popular attitudes toward Asian immigrants.
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome
Great Irish Famine
Haitian boat people
Smuggling of immigrants
Transportation of immigrants
World migration patterns