Before Legionnaire’s: A Brief History of NYC Outbreaks

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Former smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island.

MusikAnimal

Former smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island.

The South Bronx outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease may reflect recent growth in the disease, which famously emerged at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at Legionnaire’s cases in New York City from 2002 through 2011, it found that, “Overall, incidence of Legionnaires’ disease in the city of New York increased 230 percent from 2002 to 2009 and followed a socioeconomic gradient, with highest incidence occurring in the highest poverty areas.”

The disease, however, is becoming more common outside the city as well. CDC surveillance reports document cases at a hotel in Maryland, a flower show in the Netherlands, a spa display in Virginia, a cruise ship and a hotel in the Virgin Islands.

New York City has had its share of disease scares in recent years, from the tuberculosis surge in the 1990s through the West Nile Virus worry of the late 1990s, that Anthrax case in 2006, swine flu in ’09 and the Eboaa stuff last year. Of course, some diseases—HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, diabetes—don’t surface suddenly and fade away, but steadily sicken and kill thousands.

When an episode like the South Bronx outbreak occurs, it is instructive to look over the history of big outbreaks in the city and the toll they took. With gratitude to Gretchen A. Condran for compiling the figures, here’s a brief history of epidemics in New York City:

YEAR DISEASE DEATHS
1798 Yellow fever 714
1804 Smallpox 199
1805 Yellow fever 270
1822 Yellow fever 166
1824 Smallpox 394
1832 Cholera 3513
1834 Cholera 971
1834 Smallpox 233
1835 Smallpox 351
1847 Typhus/typhoid 1396
1848 Smallpox 585
1848 Typhus/typhoid 953
1849 Cholera 5071
1851 Smallpox 586
1851 Typhus/typhoid 1103
1852 Smallpox 516
1853 Smallpox 681
1854 Cholera 2501
1854 Smallpox 624
1864 Typhus/typhoid 1425
1865 Smallpox 674
1865 Typhus/typhoid 1074
1866 Cholera 1137
1872 Smallpox 1866
1872 Meningitis 782
1875 Smallpox 1899
1881 Diphtheria 4894
1887 Diphtheria 4509
1893 Meningitis 489
1901 Smallpox 410
1902 Smallpox 310
1904 Meningitis 1083
1905 Meningitis 1110
1906 Meningitis 600
1918 Influenza 12562

The list is incomplete in someways. Some of the episodes that were most devastating—for instance, the city was an epicenter of the 1916 polio outbreak, with 2,000 cases—and dramatic (the last U.S. outbreak of smallpox was here in 1947, when a massive vaccination campaign prevented a public-health disaster) aren’t listed because they didn’t claim large numbers of lives. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a huge impact on people, for better or worse.