Did Brazil's First Railroads Worsen Smallpox?
Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 1:31PM
Ian Read

In a week I’ll present a paper at a historical conference that smallpox became a much bigger problem throughout Brazil during the second half of the nineteenth century.  I estimate that more than one million Brazilian were killed by smallpox between 1850 and 1900, more than those killed by the other increasingly fearsome diseases of the day (cholera and yellow fever) and more than those killed by smallpox before 1850 and after 1900.  That smallpox worsened in Brazil is not a well recognized fact

In São Paulo and in other parts of Brazil, smallpox epidemics increased in frequency after 1850.  In the table below, we see outbreaks as they were reported by the annual São Paulo President’s and Governor’s Reports.  Some years, São Paulo’s provincial president vaguely described smallpox as occurring “throughout the state,” but it is unlikely that every or even most township had outbreaks those years.  in the 14 years between 1837 and 1850, there were four epidemics.  In the 14 years that followed, there were nine.

In some places, such as Santos, smallpox mortality rose until the 1880s, before declining (see figure below).  Epidemics, however, became more virulent until the 1890s, before they largely vanished due to far more effective and financed public health efforts under the new Republican government.   Similarly, in Rio de Janeiro, smallpox epidemics became more frequent and general mortality increased until the 1880s, before declining.  Rio de Janeiro experienced two terrible outbreaks of smallpox in 1904 and 1908 during a decade when São Paulo suffered no major epidemics.  This was an eradicable disease:  European governments had begun greatly reducing the threat of smallpox as early as the 1830s.

I plan to discuss how railroads facilitated the spread of smallpox.  In the map below, we can see various township centers connected by the railroad (grey line).  The red circles indicate epidemics that occurred between October and December, 1892.   Township centers without railroad states, including Tieté, Porto Feliz, Cajurú, Riberão Bonito, Socorro, Serra Negra, Caconde, Nazare Paulista (Nazareth), Maripora (Jaquery) and others, avoided this disease.

Other factors that may have prompted the spread of smallpox include large populations, large population growth (between 1872 and 1890), or proximity to navigable rivers.   In the final table we can see that the size of the population mattered, but there was a larger correlation between railroad stations and smallpox epidemics.  

Contemporaries were not blind to the fact that trains carried smallpox and, in fact, stations were closed when epidemics occurred.  Three local outbreaks reported by the Diário Official do Estado de São Paulo in 1891 occurred within walking distance of the train stations in São Paulo, Bocaina, and Conchas.

This is not the only disease that railroads helped make into a worse problem.  In 1889, yellow fever appears to have been greatly aided in spreading to “virgin soil” populations in interior São Paulo, devastating towns such as Campinas (see my previous post).   Railroads may have accelerated growth in Brazil, but historians who have estimated savings brought by railroad building have not yet included the enormous costs of these two contagious diseases. 

Article originally appeared on Era of Epidemics: A Spatial Approach to Disease and History in Imperial Brazil (http://empireofbrazil.org/).
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