Learning from “The Plague of Memphis”

Posted on January 23, 2014


By Megan Ververis


Memphis’ history and culture has been intrinsically altered from the six major Yellow Fever epidemics—the worst being in 1878 that caused over 17,000 souls to fall ill and killed over 5,000 Memphians. An average of 200 Memphians died each day and corpses lined the streets; the city spent $500,000 burying the dead. In the aftermath of the Yellow Fever epidemic, the city found itself bankrupt and broken, and in 1879, Tennessee revoked Memphis’ city charter. Soon after, it was found that the Yellow Fever virus was transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitos, and thus large sanitation reforms aimed to eradicate open sewers and privies ensued, which were known breeding grounds for mosquitos. Memphis was the first to use a revolutionary sewer system, which separated the sanitary sewer system from the storm sewers. After what many call “The Plague of Memphis,” the city became a leader in sanitation reform. Not many years later, Memphis discovered a rare, natural underground aquifer that provided the city with abundant safe water. To this day, Memphis is renowned for its clean and safe tap water.

Yellow Fever’s destructive path ended after a vaccine was developed in 1951. Today, the Yellow Fever virus is not a worldwide killer, but childhood vaccinations remain standard for children in endemic countries.

The possibility that another endemic could strike American urban populations is a legitimate fear. Despite strong recommendations from health practitioners and the CDC, vaccination non-compliance remains a major public health concern. In 2005, approximately 28% of American children were not in compliance with official vaccination recommendations—the contributing factors ranged from alleged increased risk of Autism* to families lacking health insurance plans that cover vaccinations.  In Memphis, the most recent statistic revealed that 17.7% of our citizens are uninsured. Lacking health insurance to cover basic medical bills is a major reason why many adults go unvaccinated. In Memphis, the uninsured rate soars at 17.7% of the city’s people.

During the influenza season, commonly called the flu season, half of the American people are undereducated about the danger the viruses poses, and refrain from receiving the flu shot. During this current flu season, the numbers of influenza hospitalizations have increased as well as the number of cases in which patients have a deadly combination of illnesses—both influenza and pneumonia. Asthma is a major risk factor for developing pneumonia with the flu.

Unfortunately, Memphis was recently named the Asthma Capital of America, due to the city having a very high number of Asthma-related deaths, poor air quality, and prevalent second-hand smoke in public areas. Combine Memphis’ Asthma population, who is at a high risk of developing deadly complications of the flu, with our high rate of uninsured, and likely unvaccinated and unprotected Memphians, and we have a recipe for the next great affliction.

As Memphians, it is vital to always remember the history that shaped the city to what it is today. The Church Health Center is an incredible organization that offers basic medical treatment, vaccinations, reliable childcare, and wellness education to uninsured Memphians. The Christ Community health centers have locations in the most medically underserved areas of Memphis and offer comprehensive medical care and a mobile medical van for the homeless. Memphis is a city of compassionate people constantly working to overcome the city’s challenges. Thanks to the people that work tirelessly to serve those in the greatest need, I am looking forward to a healthier tomorrow for Memphis.

Megan Ververis is a senior Neuroscience major at Rhodes College and an emergency department medical scribe.

Posted in: Health