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The Oldest known Diseases

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While no one may agree exactly on which diseases have plagued mankind the longest, there are several diseases which have a long record of illness and death among humans. The study of disease is fascinating, and diseases are ever-changing. Many diseases which were once almost eradicated, such as TB, are making a comeback. Antibiotic misuse and abuse has contributed to antibiotic resistance. Penicillin, once heralded as a miracle drug, is now almost useless against many diseases that it once cured. Below is a look at some of the oldest known diseases. 


Tuberculosis, or TB is a respiratory disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It spreads by droplets expelled when an infected person sneezes or coughs. It kills two million people each year, despite the availability of vaccines and antibiotics. TB affects bone and the central nervous system, as well as the respiratory system. Evidence of TB has been found in an archaeological dig off the coast of Israel. Remains of a mother and child with TB bone lesions were tested and found to be at least 9,000 years old. While this case is the oldest confirmed case of TB, characteristic bone lesions have been identified on bones found in Turkey, dated about 500,000 years ago. 


This common condition has been around since the times of the ancients. It is referred to in an Egyptian manuscript from 1550 B.C. as the disease of passing too much urine. In 600 B.C., an Indian doctor named Sushruta linked the disease with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Ancient Indians diagnosed diabetes by observing to see if ants were drawn to the person’s urine.  


Mosquitoes can be a nuisance while enjoying the outdoors. They can also transmit malaria, which has been responsible for half of all human deaths since the Stone Age, according to the Wall Street Journal. Three hundred million cases of malaria occur each year, resulting in one million deaths worldwide. The earliest known mention of malaria is  in the Chinese Canon of Medicine in 2700 B.C. 


Cholera was listed by Hippocrates in 400 B.C.  in his catalog of diseases. It is believed to have originated along the Ganges River, which was very densely populated. Since 1961, there have been seven major pandemics of cholera.  


Typhoid spread through ancient Athens from 430 B.C. to 426 B.C. It was characterized by fever, severe vomiting and diarrhea, and weakness which often proved fatal. It is partially blamed for Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Nowadays almost all school children learn about “Typhoid Mary.” Born Mary Mallon, this healthy carrier worked as a cook in New York in the early 1900’s. While not the most prolific healthy carrier of typhoid, she is the most notorious. Typhoid Mary is blamed with 47 cases of typhoid and three deaths. 


Although mentioned in the Bible, leprosy goes back even further.  It was mentioned along with diabetes in an Egyptian document from 1550 B.C. Leprosy is caused by a bacteria that can lie dormant for 20 years or more without showing symptoms. Those with leprosy were socially shunned and often banned to leper colonies, such as the North Brother facility secluded on an island in New York City, just 350 yards from the Bronx. Typhoid Mary was a resident here, along with others who suffered leprosy, TB, or needed to be quarantined. 

More about this author: Roma Lightsey

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