King's College London
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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease

Blair on yellow fever

Colour illustrations of a liver showing the effects of the disease and a specimen in a jarFigure 1: A liver showing the effects of the disease. Figure 2: Specimen in a jarNative to tropical West Africa, yellow fever is a virus transmitted to humans through the bite of the female aedes aegypti mosquito. In mild cases sufferers experience high fever, muscular pains and headaches, which last a few days before subsiding completely.

For less fortunate victims the symptoms later recur, this time accompanied by a jaundice which gives the disease its name, as well as by internal haemorrhaging and the vomiting of blood. It is through circulatory collapse and organ failure – most often the liver – that yellow fever eventually kills. Figure 1 in the image here shows the effect of the disease on one victim’s liver.

Prior to the disease being properly understood and appropriately tackled, yellow fever had an important part to play in military, colonial and commercial history. Indigenous populations were often immune, yet yellow fever spread widely - first through the movement of slaves and colonisers, and later as a result of global free trade, all of which brought non-immune individuals into contact with the disease. 

Nowadays the disease remains endemic in Africa and Latin America, where – despite the existence of a highly effective vaccine and the implementation of mosquito control programmes – the WHO estimated there were 29,000-60,000 deaths due to yellow fever in 2013.

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