The Cholera Epidemic in Puerto Rico and COVID-19

by Daniel Mora-Ortiz

Cholera, a disease caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae, produces a serious intestinal infection, which causes severe dehydration that can cost a person their life. Damage can range from several days to as little as a few hours. This post provides a snapshot of the cholera epidemic that ravaged Puerto Rico from 1855 to 1856.

Cholera infections in Puerto Rico began in November 1855 in the east and north of the island. By March 1856 infections decreased but resurfaced mid-summer later in east Puerto Rico. Reports of the disease continued through the southeast and west until the outbreak’s cessation in December 1856.

Cholera route from November 1855 to December 1856

Cholera killed approximately 5.4% of Puerto Rico’s population of 481, 613. The most affected populations lived in Arecibo, Mayagüez and San Germán. In Arecibo 1,595 (11.4%) of 13,940 died. 

map 2 - cholerics-cemetery-Arecibo-ENG
Choleric Cemetery in the city of Arecibo, north of Puerto Rico (Documentation of Puerto Rico in the Cartographic and Geographical Studies Archive of the Army Geographical Center)

How was this disease fought in those years? Like the Covid-19, officials used quarantines and social distancing methods to restrict movement. Municipalities used sanitary cords to limit pedestrian traffic, urban militias patrolled roads on horseback and quarantines at seaports to limit the spread of cholera.

map 1 - cordon_sanitario_ponce
Diagram of the sanitary cord in the city of Ponce, south of Puerto Rico – 1855 (Historical Archive of Ponce)

Doctors used therapeutic treatments which included mixtures with ingredients such as camphor, flowers, syrups, and even doses of ammonia. Others applied hot bricks, massages or bloodletting with leeches. Some doctors experimented with metal therapy – the use of metals internally and externally – to treat patients. 

The city council released health reports every twelve hours, 6 am and 6 pm, on the number of sick, cured and deceased. Regular updates were also made in the official press, La Gaceta del Gobierno de Puerto Rico. Today information is transmitted in written, digital, television, radio and social media providing updates on newly diagnosed cases, people undergoing tests, those in treatment, cured and deaths. Platforms of health entities such as the World Health Organization and others provide a global count of patients, cured, and deceased by COVID-19.

figure 1 - gacetapr_29111855
Official newspaper of the Government of Puerto Rico (University of Puerto Rico)

Solidarity between communities and interventions for the poor also occurred. This included donations of money, cattle, chickens, vegetables, coffee, rice and bananas. In addition, the government created a Board of Charities for widows and orphans to collect money from locals. 

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that in health emergencies such as cholera in Puerto Rico, sanitary cords and the closing of borders are not enough. A good public health system, solidarity and above all, common sense, are essential to fight against deadly diseases such as COVID-19.

Daniel Mora Ortiz obtained his Master’s Degree in Art, with a specialty in History from the University of Puerto Rico. Currently, he works at the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico. The Spanish version of this post (La epidemia del cólera en Puerto Rico y el COVID-19) can be found here “Punto de Vista” column of the newspaper El Nuevo Dia.

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