The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, which makes it one of the most important trade routes in the world. The construction started in 1881, and everything went well until 85% of the construction workers fell ill, twenty-two thousand of them died. The yellow fever virus decimated the crew but how did it spread and what were further consequences for the construction of the Panama Canal?
The Panama Canal
Connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean shortens many routes, it is also a lot safer than traveling through the Cape Horn in the south tip of South America, nearby Antarctica. The control over the passage is also an important political and military asset. That is why the first proposals were brought to the table as far back as the 16th century by the Spanish King Charles V. He wanted to shorten the route from Peru to Spain and gain an advantage over the Portuguese. Over centuries the empires changed, however, the main idea remained the same. Finally, the French started building the Panama Canal in 1881.
Complicated Construction of the Canal
The construction of the canal began in 1881, due to Ferdinand de Lesseps who was also responsible for the Suez Canal. The tropical rainforest, climate difficult for the French, and an absolute lack of the previous route to follow made the construction an extreme engineering challenge. Later on, it turned out that the French won’t manage to complete that challenge, and the US intervened. Until 1904 they landed the land for the canal, bought off the French equipment, and paid the newly formed country of Panama. Finally, the construction was completed in 1914.
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The main trouble the French faced during building the canal was an extreme death rate. The workers fell ill, the symptoms included internal bleeding and jaundice. Twenty-two thousand died and later on, the information about ‘Yellow Jack’ coming to town scared the workers away. Finally, the pay rises did not work, the workers died or quit, and due to a terrible reputation, not enough wanted to work at the construction. If it wasn’t for Americans, the canal might never have been completed.
Cause of Disease
Yellow Fever is a viral disease, which means it is caused by a virus. It contains only the RNA as its genetic material, used for propagating in host’s cells, which makes it an RNA-virus. It does not affect female mosquitoes that spread the disease, only humans and several other primates. It’s not easy to recognize it, especially in the early stages. The name comes from the yellowing of skin at late stages, which happens due to liver failure. Today there are blood tests (involving a PCR reaction) that confirm or decline the presence of the virus. There is also a safe, lifelong vaccine.
Symptoms and Course of Disease
The disease does not usually last long. The first stage symptoms include fever, nausea, and lack of appetite, aches, and muscle pain. At that point, it is hard to separate from other diseases. It usually gets better within five days; however, in 15% of cases, the symptoms come back, often even harder. That is when the organs start to fail, starting with the liver, which causes yellowish skin. Afterward, there is a risk of internal bleeding, other organ failures (usually kidneys), and eventually even death. These days, about 200 thousand people a year get sick, causing 30 thousand deaths. 90% occurs in Africa, often in areas where people do not have access to necessary medication or vaccine.