The Black Plague and the siege of Caffa

The Black Death came to Europe in the 14th century, probably mostly aboard merchant ships from the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, though soldiers returning from late, intermittent Crusade-type forays likely contributed to the pandemic as well.

One early episode in this notorious outbreak of plague demonstrates that its victims had the misfortune to learn firsthand that the disease could be transmitted from person to person.

In 1346, a Tartar army laid seige to Caffa, a port in Crimea, now an autonomous republic just south of Ukraine. Caffa, now called Feodosija, was then held by Genoa, a mighty Italian city-state and commercial power. The seige lasted three years, and the residents and refugees in Caffa were in a bad way by the end. But then the Tartars began to die in great numbers from a horrific disease, and the tide appeared to be turning.

The remaining Tartars got the idea of catapulting the rotting corpses of their plague victims into the walled city of Caffa. Apparently, the Tartars' hope was that the "intolerable stench would kill everyone inside," according to an account by the Italian notary and writer Gabriele de’ Mussi. At the time, "miasmas," or noxious airs from rotting organic matter, were thought to be one source of disease.

Soon, even though the cadavers were dumped into the sea, people began to die in the besieged city. And then, the survivors began to flee.

De' Mussi writes:

Among those who escaped from Caffa by boat were a few sailors who had been infected with the poisonous disease. Some boats were bound for Genoa, others went to Venice and to other Christian areas. When the sailors reached these places and mixed with the people there, it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them: every city, every settlement, every place was poisoned by the contagious pestilence, and their inhabitants, both men and women, died suddenly. And when one person had contracted the illness, he poisoned his whole family even as he fell and died, so that those preparing to bury his body were seized by death in the same way.

De' Mussi was not an eye-witness to the events in Caffa. However, his account preserved not only the details of what has been remarked upon as an early instance of biological warfare, but also what the survivors learned about how diseases can be transmitted.

Early stirrings of the germ theory

The germ theory of disease, which holds that certain diseases are caused by living organisms, occurred to people thousands of years ago, but  it was proved only in the 19th century.

In the western tradition, the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro first laid out the germ theory in his book, On Agriculture, a practical guide published in about 36 B.C. In it, Varro advises the farmer against building near swamps because “certain minute animals, invisible to the eye, breed there and, borne by the air, reach inside the body by way of the mouth and nose and cause diseases that are difficult to get rid of.”

Varro was a prodigious scholar and well known public figure, and his works were highly influential. However, at least some of his contemporaries, apparently including the writer/philosopher/statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, considered his germ theory a crackpot idea.

It is worth noting that the Atharva Veda, the first Indian book that addresses medical topics, includes a fairly detailed germ theory. The book identifies a number of living organisms that were deemed responsible for causing various diseases, and prescribes cures to kill the organisms. The Atharva Veda was written down about 200 B.C., but its ideas may date as far back as 1,000 B.C.

Keeping track of maternal mortality

From the issue of The Lancet published today:

There is little hope of obtaining precise estimates of maternal mortality rates, as we do for under-5 mortality, for instance. The sources of data are heterogeneous, data quality varies substantially, and the issue of death after induced abortion remains important in countries where it is illegal. It seems a better strategy to separate estimates of obstetric deaths for countries with vital registration, and pregnancy-related deaths for countries that rely on surveys, to increase internal consistency and produce more reliable trends.

Maternal deaths and pregnancy-related deaths are not necessarily the same thing, the article states. A maternal death is one that "could have been prevented by proper antenatal and obstetric care," while a pregnancy-related death "can include infectious, non-communicable, and external causes."

The article's authors, Michel Garenne and Robert McCaa, also say that "one could note a decline in maternal deaths despite an increase in pregnancy-related deaths when confounding with other causes is very strong, as is the case in countries with increasing death rates from HIV, tuberculosis, accidents, and violence."

I would say two things about this article's thesis. First, in a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS and war, some women who are stricken with illness or murdered will be pregnant, but how those deaths are pregnancy-related is a mystery to me. A pregnancy-related death to me would be a woman murdered by her husband for being pregnant, or a woman whose pregnancy contributed to her death from swine flu, for example.

Second, just as a note, it's pretty grandiose to say that "proper antenatal and obstetric care" can head off every true pregnancy-related disaster, like amniotic fluid embolism, for example. Sometimes, in spite of the best efforts, women die.

Oh, well, the authors' point is a good one: Precise estimates of maternal mortality are hard to come by.

Malawi eases rule on birth attendants

The African nation of Malawi will take a new tack in its campaign to improve its maternal-mortality statistics.

Almost immediately after his return from the United Nations meeting in New York on the Millennium Development Goals, President Bingu wa Mutharika lifted a ban on traditional birth attendants.

The fifth MDG is to cut the number of women who die in childbirth worldwide by 75 percent by the year 2015. Malawi, along with a number of other countries, has experienced disappointing progress on Goal 5.

Malawi shares Africa's dismal statistics on maternal mortality; a mother's lifetime chance of dying in childbirth there is 1 in 36, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. (HIV/AIDS is a major factor in Malawi.) Not only that, but decreases in the rate of deaths, presently 510 per 100,000 births, have only been running about 3 percent per year since 1990.

Banning TBAs was part of an earlier effort to get more women to deliver their babies with assistants trained in modern medical techniques, who would be able to recognize and respond to emergencies. Only 54 percent of Malawi women delivered their babies in a health-care facility in 2005.

However, one result of the ban has been that more women have delivered their babies without any kind of real birth attendant, traditional or modern, or with TBAs working under the threat of fines.

Dorothy Ngoma, executive director of the National Organization of Nurses and Midwives in Malawi, told The Nation, a daily newspaper in Malawi, "They [TBAs] never really stopped.... What happened is that they went underground."

It appears that President Mutharika decided after the UN summit that training TBAs to be part of the solution made more sense. The president married Callista Chimombo last spring, and the new first lady appears to be taking an active role in addressing the country's poverty.

The Nation reported that her Safe Motherhood Foundation will train 20 TBAs from the countryside next year in modern birth methods. They will then return to serve their communities as midwives.

Healthcare facilities tend to be concentrated in Malawi's cities, while 70 percent of the nation's 15 million people live in rural areas. There are reportedly two doctors for every 100,000 Malawians.

"We should not abandon TBAs, as they are very important to our program of safe motherhood," President Mutharika was quoted as saying in The Nation.

Disease viewed as a loss of balance

The "humoral theory" of disease, which originated with Hippocrates (who lived from about 460 to about 370 B.C.) and lasted until the early 20th century, held that a balance had to be maintained among four humors or liquid substances in the human body. If that balance got out of whack, the thinking was, people got sick.

The four humors were black bile, red or yellow bile, blood and phlegm. The ancients believed that these substances ruled our personalities as well as our bodies. They divided all the possible character types into these four — melancholic, choleric, sanguine and phlegmatic — depending on which substance dominated that particular person.

Treatments for disease were designed to restore the balance among the humors, but what worked for one person might not work for another, which helped let practitioners off the hook if a "cure" didn't work. Purges like enemas and emetics were popular, and physicians often advised changes to a patient's diet or routine. Blood-letting was an especially durable cure for just about anything.

During labor, for example, "some women were bled to unconsciousness to counter delivery pains" or any other complications large or small, according to Peter Conrad's The Sociology of Health and Illness.

The acceptance of the germ theory finally put an end to humoral theory in mainstream medical thought.