Have you ever wondered where all the wide-scale epidemics have gone? What made them vanish into history, never to be seen again? Was it just scientific breakthroughs, ground-breaking healthcare discoveries, or pharmaceutical innovations?
While it is hard to imagine today’s world without all of the above, there is one thing that is often overlooked when it comes down to fighting diseases. It is plumbing.
Read this post to find out how plumbing helped eradicate life-threatening diseases and how sanitation has saved the world to this day.
Before we dive into our main topic of how plumbing helped (and still does) fighting diseases, let’s take a look back at the times when people in Europe and North America did not take regular baths.
Centuries ago, Europeans did not like taking baths much. The reasons being religious prejudices and common misconceptions. For instance, people used to think that getting wet could result in illness and even death.
Another reason worth mentioning is Europeans’ contempt for anything the Roman Empire left behind. As you know, British isles and much of Europe used to be parts of the Roman Empire back in the day. So when the Empire went for good, the Europeans of the past decided to hate everything that was Rome-related. At least, that’s how the legend goes.
Later on, the New World inherited this deeply rooted anti-sanitary tradition and carried it right to the late 19th century. At some points, bathing obtained an outlaw status. For instance, in Boston, where taking baths was only allowed as a healthcare procedure.
As you may guess, this sanitary neglect was resulting in horribly high death rates throughout the centuries. And while doctors and scientists were fighting diseases, trying to figure out what caused them, inventing treatment methods, and creating cures, there was one thing yet to be discovered. And that is the importance of bathing and keeping clean.
Early and mid-19th-century Europe is hardly a healthy place. Children die at tragically high rates. London, with its poor water infrastructure, is no exception. Londoners drink water that they take from town pumps and public wells. Modern-day technologies of secure waste disposal are yet to be invented, so raw sewage and animal wastes go straight into the city’s gutters or into the very river Thames. And guess what, people of London use just the same river as their drinking water source. Some widespread epidemic is just a question of time in such conditions.
One of the massive epidemics struck London in the middle of the 19th century. 1854’s cholera outbreak took the lives of thousands of people. In just ten days, more than five hundred Londoners died in Soho, uptown London. The disease spread extremely fast, and its victims died within hours. But what caused it, and what let cholera spread so easily?
The man to answer the question was Dr. John Snow. Living in the proximity of Soho, Dr. Snow had the opportunity to study the course of the outbreak and to eventually find out what caused it.
It is only some five years prior to the events, Dr. John Snow issued his article in which he theorized on what the cause of cholera could be. His guess was the water. Dr. Snow came with the idea that it was contaminated water that helped cholera spread so easily. With symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, this fact seems obvious these days, but in the mid-19th century, things were different.
Dr. Snow’s opponents argued, saying that bad vapors or some “miasmas” were the cause. But they were wrong, and Dr. Snow proved it. He managed to find the source of the disease in the Broad Street pump. He made the local authorities remove the pump handle, which stopped the outbreak. Eventually, the main cause of the epidemic turned out to be the contaminated water in the well in which a woman cleaned dirty diapers.
Thanks to his research and discoveries, Dr. Snow is now known as the father of epidemiology.
For a long time, before plumbing came to extensive use and became the norm of everyday life, urban sanitation quality was desired. There was no running water in homes. Nor were there bathrooms as we know them now. People used to throw human waste just into the street. Urban areas of those times were usually swarming with rats and other vermin, which often caused widespread outbreaks.
The most infamous is The Black Death, the plague pandemic of the mid-14th century that reportedly killed almost two hundred million people. We can’t say that plague is eradicated today, but thanks to modern-day sanitation, healthcare, and science, such large-scale outbreaks became almost impossible.
However, sanitation norms still differ throughout the world. And sometimes, they differ drastically.
For instance, India is one of the countries with poor plumbing and sanitation. It is reported that almost 21% of the world’s communicable diseases in that country are caused by hygiene neglect and the use of unclean water. Among those diseases is polio.
Polio is known to spread through human waste. So this disease spreads fast in areas where sanitation conditions are poor. And while a massive vaccination campaign has had its impressive results and the World Health Organization once declared India a “polio-free” country, there is no guarantee that a new polio outbreak will not happen tomorrow.
In 2009, for instance, India had almost eight hundred cases of polio, gaining the status of the polio capital of the world. As of 2014, no new polio cases were reported. Without proper sanitation improvement in India’s poorest areas, new outbreaks are still very likely.
India, being the world’s second most populated country, has yet a lot to do to improve plumbing and sanitary conditions nationwide. With a population of more than one billion people, ninety-six million citizens in India don’t have an opportunity to drink clean water, and a terrifying number of Indians (almost eight hundred million) don’t have a toilet. In the poorest rural areas of India, open defecation is still a common practice. More sanitary measures of human waste disposal such as burying are less used.
As great and helpful as massive vaccination can get, this is hardly enough to guarantee public health in the future. Vaccines that Indian children have already got due to Bill Gates and the World Health Organization public health campaign are just not the same as improved sanitation that many regions of India need.
After all, vaccinating people, as important as it is, is only a part of a wide-scale public health measure. Another part of it is providing people with clean water supplies and high-quality sanitation and plumbing services. If things like open defecation and dumping fecal matter whenever possible are still common, if there are no toilets, if there is no clean drinking water, there is still a threat of new epidemics. Contaminated water and food, poor sanitary conditions are the breeding grounds for life-threatening diseases. And this is something vaccines just can’t fight.
Here’s the question: did plumbing do a better job at fighting diseases than vaccination did? Truth be told, this question does not have an easy answer. However, there are people claiming just the opposite.
There are people who believe that plumbers are the unsung heroes who never got their credit for what they did and still do. Those people claim that without plumbing, life-threatening diseases would have still been around, causing massive epidemics. Vaccines, those people say, only fight consequences, whereas sanitary plumbing nips diseases in the bud, preventing hazardous bacteria and viruses from breeding.
Another opinion is that worldwide vaccination is just a money-making campaign. Some believe that big pharmaceutical corporations only push their agenda by advertising their products to vaccinate millions around the world for profit. Some go even further, claiming that vaccines are dangerous and vaccination may cause a variety of side-effects and even complications. These people often promote vaccine refusal.
We will not dive into the latter since we believe that vaccination is subject to personal responsibility. It takes certain competence to make such decisions for yourself or someone in your family. However, we would like to comment on the plumbing-vs-vaccines issue.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Sanitary plumbing has indeed made the world a much cleaner and, as a result, safer place. We can only guess how many epidemics humanity had avoided during the last one hundred years thanks to safe waste disposal and clean running water.
But plumbing itself is not enough to ensure public health in perspective. Bathrooms and toilets do not help us build our immune system. It takes a whole bunch of other measures like eating healthy, doing regular exercises, getting enough sleep, giving up bad habits, and taking medicines if you need to, as well as taking vaccines.
So, it will be only fair to say that sanitary plumbing goes side by side with medicine and pharmaceutical innovations making the world healthier.
Here’s another story from the 19th century. This time it’s the USA. The city of Chicago, to be more precise.
Between 1835 and 1850, the population in Chicago increased dramatically. That was due to the effect of the industrial revolution, and massive urbanization is caused. Towns and cities grew and developed rapidly, which is a good thing. The bad thing is the more the population grew, the more healthcare problems occurred. Those days Chicago faced a lot of healthcare challenges. And the biggest of them was typhoid fever.
What is typhoid fever? It is a nasty bacterial infection that causes overall weakness, stomach pains, vomiting, constipation, and headaches. All of these symptoms can last for months and eventually may result in a fatality.
As with the cholera outbreak in London, Chicago’s cause of the disease’s rapid growth was also found in water supplies and sanitation. The city’s sewage was dumped into the Chicago River. Its contaminated waters then entered Lake Michigan, the same lake that the people of Chicago used as their drinking water source.
It took decades to improve Chicago’s sanitary infrastructure and water supply system, and by the very beginning of the 20th-century, typhoid cases finally dropped.
The Rwandan refugee camps’ story is another example of how poor sanitary conditions can lead to a disaster.
In 1994, refugees in Zaire faced dysentery. Again, it all happened because of poor sanitary and a total lack of adequate human waste disposal. People had no opportunity to use toilets or whatever and had to defecate openly. As a result, the fecal matter of hundreds of people was building up just by the water source that refugees used to take water from. Floods caused by heavy rains turned dysentery into an epidemic in no time. The fatality rate rocketed, reaching two thousand deaths a day.
Unfortunately, such epidemics are frequent in refugee camps all over the world. High-quality sanitation and plumbing are usually out of the question there, so people have no access to clean drinking water and toilets. They have to live under health-threatening conditions using unsafe water sources, resulting in massive epidemics and high death rates.
As for the camps in Zaire, as soon as the UN had provided clean water and instructed people to use latrines, the epidemic began to recede.
Just like we said in the beginning, sanitation and plumbing played a huge role in fighting diseases throughout human history. And they still protect us from widespread epidemics providing us with clean drinking water and safe human waste disposal systems. Too bad it took people so long to understand the importance of plumbing and sanitation.
Plague, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and polio – impacts of these diseases in the past could have been smaller if people of the past made use of sanitary measures like the Ancient Greeks and Romans did. Those two nations surely knew how important it is to stay clean. Their inventions, such as drainage systems, baths, public toilets, and aqueducts, helped them avoid large-scale outbreaks.
But then something happened, and for centuries on, sanitation was neglected. And with this neglect came outbreaks and pandemics. Sanitation had to be reinvented, and the lifesaving importance of it had to be revalued.
What sanitation does is fighting the cause of disease and makes it impossible for it to spread. And while it can’t fight or eradicate every single disease in the world, along with cutting-edge medical science and modern-day healthcare, sanitary plumbing is among the key elements of our well-being.
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