DISEASE AND EPIDEMICS IN CARIBBEAN SOCIETIES: An Introduction

Boy 11 kingston-gleaner-Jan-09-1951-p-1
Daily Gleaner January 9, 1951 p. 1

On the 9th January 1951, the Daily Gleaner reported that Joslyn Vernon, aged 11 years from Maroon Town, St. James died of vomiting sickness. His sister was later hospitalized under suspicion of suffering from the same affliction. Similar reports of persons suffering from chronic vomiting littered newspapers of the period.

ALL OUT kingston-gleaner-Feb-12-1952-p-1
Daily Gleaner Feb 12, 1952 p. 1

In the first half of the twentieth century, ‘Vomiting Sickness’ raged across Jamaica affecting both young and old alike but with significant consequences for children in rural areas.  In 1951, a localized outbreak killed 32 persons out of 150 cases. Consequently, the government sanctioned a commission to investigate the causes of this illness.

Dr. Cicely Williams and Professor Eric Cruickshank led a team from the recently established University College of the West Indies and the Jamaica Medical Service to investigate the underlying causes of the disease between 1951 and 1953.

The investigation highlighted how poverty – with specific reference to food insecurity – was a significant contributor to the disease and other cases of malnutrition among infants and children in the country. 

1 salt spring kingston-gleaner-Aug-11-1952-p-8
Daily Gleaner August 11, 1952

Today, Vomiting Sickness, also known as Ackee Poisoning, occurs in response to a hypoglycemic agent ingested while consuming young ackees. The subsequent educational campaign alerted the Jamaican community to the dangers of eating young ackees – information that continues to be informally passed down within the family unit and communities– thus removing its threat to the society. 

Outbreaks of disease and epidemics have shaped societies for a millennium. In the case of the Caribbean, yellow fever, smallpox, cholera and others decimated populations (indigenous, African and European), revealed socio-economic inequalities and propelled public health innovations and medical research.

This series, which will run until September, features snapshots of histories of disease and epidemics in the region and their impact on the communities, public health policies, and economies. You will find that there are similarities between epidemics of the past and our response to COVID – 19 today. Ultimately, these articles will illuminate the impacts of disease and epidemics on personal health practices, cultural expressions of death and spirituality, public health education practices and citizenship formation. Our next post will be published Tuesday May 19, 2020  and is titled ‘The cholera epidemic in Puerto Rico and COVID-19’ by Daniel Mora-Ortiz from University of Puerto Rico.

Happy International Museums Day.

Wear a mask, wash your hands and if possible, limit social interactions.

*Republished from UWI Museum site*

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