Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Before there was West Nile Virus there was Ague Fever

Note: My great-great-great-grandparents, Joseph and Magdalena Good, came from Rockingham County, Virginia, to Liberty Township in Seneca County in the early summer of 1831. They purchased 160 acres of land just outside of what would later become the village of Bettsville. Ague Fever (rhymes with Nixon's disgraced VP, Agnew) or Malaria as we call it today, was a disease common to all those who lived in the area known as The Black Swamp. Anopheles quadrimaculatus, the species of mosquito that carries the disease, is one of approximately sixty species of mosquito that still inhabits this region today. (The Anopheles quadrimaculatus does not carry the West Nile Virus.)

The Good family wagon would have lumbered along, through the growing town of Tiffin, on its way to “their” land in Liberty Township. They may have noticed grown men bundled up in heavy wool clothing and thought it odd attire for a summer day. How long before someone knowingly asked them, “Have ya got the ague fever, yet?”

Joseph, and certainly Magdalena, must have been dismayed when they saw the soggy wet land where they would start their new life. They would have seen dense thickets of trees and shrub, smelled ripe decaying vegetation. From dusk until morning, hoards of mosquitoes would buzz loudly around the family and their livestock. At least one book records the death of a small child bitten by mosquitoes in nearby Scott Township of Sandusky County. Was the Good family wise enough to keep smudge pots going at night to drive the mosquitoes away?

A female mosquito that had bitten one of the “old timers” a couple of weeks before and had ingested his blood, probably had not noticed the fever and the chills in the man. All the mosquito cared about was getting the vital protein in the blood that allowed her to lay the optimum number of eggs. She was following an age-old instinct of survival of her species. Nor would she care that the blood she ingested carried along with the needed amino acid, a protozoan that was causing the illness in the man she had bitten. Once the protozoan had remained inside the mosquito for a week, multiplying and growing, the mosquito would be transferring the parasite when she bit the next individual.

Joseph Good would have appealed to the mosquito only because, he was nearby and he had left an arm or maybe a neck exposed so that she could land, bite him, and suck out just the right amount of blood she needed. Of course, as she bit him, she would be transferring saliva into the open wound. The saliva contained a chemical that kept the wound from clotting. It also contained the protozoa that caused malaria. Joseph would have noticed the itch from the bite, the red mark on his skin, but he would not connect the symptoms that would eventually follow.

The protozoa laced saliva of the mosquito would have traveled to his liver, where it found the right conditions to grow and multiply. Sometime between 8 days and several months after the mosquito's bite, the parasites would leave the liver and enter Joseph's red blood cells. There they would grow and multiply still more, bursting the red blood cells as they grew, attacking still more red blood cells, all the while releasing toxins into Joseph's blood.

It would be at this point Joseph would start to feel ill. He would have severe chills and shakes, and would understand why a man would put on woolens on a hot summer day. Then there would be the high fever and headache, as well as an overwhelming fatigue accompanied by muscle aches, nausea and possibly diarrhea. From the destruction of his red blood cells, Joseph would become pale or possibly jaundiced. Any mosquitoes biting Joseph now would also ingest the parasite, allowing the cycle to continue.

Joseph and the rest of the settlers thought this terrible fever came from inhaling the “bad air” of The Black Swamp. The discovery that a protozoan in the blood caused the disease and that the lowly mosquito was responsible for transmission, would not be made until the late 19th century.

Though the relationship of mosquitoes to the disease would be unknown for more than another half century, the settlers did realize that there was a cycle to the disease. It would first strike during the warmth of late spring, peak with the humid hot days of summer, and taper off after the first crisp fall day.

When the disease was at its peak, “work schedules were fixed to accommodate the fits. The justice arranged the docket to avoid the sick day of the litigant; the minister made his appointments in keeping with the shakes; the housewife hurried through her morning chores, then sat down to await her visitor; and the sparking swain reckoned the ager schedule of self and intended. Neither a wedding in the family nor a birth or death would stop the shakes,” this according to the book “The Midwest Pioneer: His Ills, Cures & Doctors,” by Picard and Buley. Livestock went unattended when whole families became bedridden with the illness.

Almost as bad as the disease itself, were the cures that the local doctors prescribed for their hapless patients. Bloodletting was a common practice along with such diverse cures as opium, spider's web, the bark of a horse chestnut and even arsenic in conjunction with the bark of cinchona. (Quinine, the traditional cure, is a derivative of the bark of the cinchona tree.)

All this was part of the daily life of the Northwestern Ohio family. A reduced supply of stagnant water due to ditch laws enacted in the 1850s, created a reduction in the number of mosquitoes’ eggs. The fewer supply of mosquitoes interacting with the human hosts, disrupted the multiplication of the parasite, which put an end to malaria as a common illness for local inhabitants.

The first few decades that Joseph and Magdalena spent in Seneca County, however, would have found the family along with those of their neighbors plagued with malaria. It was just a part of daily life that had to be endured.

Until Next Time — Happy Ancestral Digging!

Note this post first published online, October 10, 2007, at Desktop Genealogist Blog at The News-Messenger Online

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