www.pressreader.com/india/the-times-of-india-mumbai-edition/.../2817240890458492 days ago - 120 years ago, Bombay suffered but saved the world from bubonic plague ... Over a century ago, Bombay Presidency was stricken with the ...
Over a century ago, Bombay Presidency was stricken with the bubonic plague. It was detected on 18th September, 1896, at Mandvi, near Masjid Bunder, and it killed 1,900 people per week through the rest of the year. Thousands fled, the city’s textile mills spun to a halt and makeshift plague hospitals dotted the landscape. By the turn of the century, the city’s population had fallen by 40,000.
But as fatal as the epidemic was for the people of Bombay, it injected new life into medical research. It was here that Waldemar Haffkine discovered the plague vaccine, which helped control the epidemic, and Paul Louis Simmond figured out that the oriental rat flea– not the rat – was the original culprit.
More than a century later, the cause of the epidemic is still debated by historians. “I think the strongest theory is that it was an imported disease,” says scholar Dr Shubha Pandya. “It came from China to Hong Kong and then to Bombay. There were infected rats, which came in bags of grain on trading vessels.” However, Shriti Tyagi, who led a plague walk in the city last weekend, claimed that later research has found that the disease emerged because of rapid industrialization and building activity, which led to rats dying in large numbers. “Plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, an infectious disease occurring naturally in wild rodents,” she explains. “It is transmitted from rodent to rodent via Xenopsylla cheopsis, a flea whose favourite blood is that of rodents followed by humans. When fleas run short of rats, they turn to human beings.”
Today, vestiges of the epidemic still lurk in the city’s neglected corners. There’s a street named after Dr Accacio Gabriel Viegas, the man who first detected the plague; Arthur Road Hospital at Chinchpokli – where the first plague patient was admitted on September 24th – is now the Kasturba Hospital of Infectious Diseases though a ward named after the health officer in charge during the peak of the epidemic still exists; and the turreted building on the JJ Hospital campus, where the vaccine was first discovered, now houses a blood bank.
The grandest memorial to the 1896 epidemic is the museum in Parel’s Haffkine Institute. One section is dedicated to a variety of stuffed rodents found in Mumbai, another to the flea, which carries the plague bacteria in its gut; and another to a culture flask growing the bacteria in a goat flesh broth. “Beef and pork were ruled out by Haffkine because of religious considera- tions,” says the guide.
Haffkine, who was born in Odessa in 1960, first came to Calcutta in 1893 to stem the cholera epidemic by inoculating the population. When the plague broke out in Bombay, he took over a room in Grant Medical College’s Petit Laboratory and worked 12-14 hours to find a vaccine. It was ready by December and he first tested it on rats, then on himself and finally on a group of prisoners from Arthur Road Jail. Once the efficacy of the vaccine was determi- In 2004, TOI interviewed Nancy Hafkin, the great-granddaughter of Waldemar Haffkine, a Russian Jewish scientist, who won acclaim by discovering the cholera and plague vaccines. Though a trained historian, she didn’t know a lot about her ancestor’s work in Bombay until she visited the museum. She was attending a conference in Baramati when someone suggested she visit the institute A bacteriologist examining rats during the Bombay plague ned, his laboratory moved to the Aga Khan’s lodging in Mazgaon and then to the current premises in 1899.
Even as plague research was flourishing and hospitals for different communities were being set up across Bombay, citizens were wary of colonial medical practices, which often involved detection committees storming into homes and violating women’s privacy. During the walk, Tyagi recounted tales of a dead man, who was propped up amongst a group of card players to Dr Accacio Viegas detected the first case of bubonic plague in Bombay and brought it to the attention of the authorities. His statue stands opposite Metro Cinema Haffkine Institute in Parel has a museum with a section dedicated to the 1896 Bombay plague. This exhibit shows the different kinds of rodents that carried the bacteria, which was transmitted by a flea avoid detection and another of a woman, who wrapped her feverish husband in a blanket. When it was unfurled, the authorities realized that the poor man had died of suffocation, not plague.
Ahost of native remedies also became popular at the time including an ointment called marham-e-almas, hawked by a hakim in Bhendi Bazaar, and Sister McCollough’s Fizz, a vile mix of soda with bismuth, mucilage and hydrocyanic acid. The building where Waldemar Haffkine discovered the plague vaccine with the help of one clerk and three assistants
By the early1900s, the epidemic had run its course in Bombay – thanks partly to better sanitation –and the city began to stagger back to normalcy. But even today, there are still outbreaks. In July this year, a10-year-old boy contracted the disease in Russia; and in 2014, the World Health Organization reported an outbreak of plague in Madagascar, which resulted in 40 deaths. Today, the vaccine isn’t commercially available and the treatment of choice is antibiotics.
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