In the past, a random disease could infect an isolated tribe and kill them all off before the virus spread beyond their borders. Today, a backpacker could pick up a contagious disease in Papua New Guinea and be back home in Chicago coughing on people three days later.
Take SARS, for example. Acute Respiratory Syndrome first appeared in Asia in February 2003. Just a few months later the disease–which can only be transmitted by close, personal contact–had spread across the globe infecting people in more than 25 countries.
Such a rapid epidemic was only possible because of the massive proliferation of international flights crisscrossing the globe. One infected person in a single airplane landing at Heathrow could spread a disease like SARS around the globe within a day. This is scary stuff, folks!But hold on a minute. Diseases have piggybacked their way around the globe long before planes took to the sky–it just took a lot longer in those days.
In fact, a controversial report published last Monday seeks to finalize the debate that that it was none other than Christopher Columbus and his crew who were responsible for spreading syphilis around the globe. Researchers believe that members of the crew contacted the disease (probably a variation of tropical yaws) in South America and then returned home to spread it throughout Europe in 1495 and ultimately, the world.
Although the evidence is not yet conclusive, it does lend credence an old, popular saying: Columbus, did in fact, sail the ocean blue.
Har, har, har…