The Filipino’s battle against disease-A A +A
Saturday, January 26, 2013
THE modern Filipino complains about how expensive medicine is, or how the generic brand they bought from that shifty-looking pharmacy the other day actually accelerated their disease instead of curing it. Our generation is lucky to have drugs at all, considering the fact that our forefathers were dropping like flies from the virtual disease buffet that the swamps and jungles brought upon us.
During the American colonial period in the early 20th century, before the advent of modern medicine in the Philippines, the country was swimming in germ soup.
During the Philippine-American War, 75% of American casualties were lost to disease – that’s three thousand people dead from epidemics of malaria, cholera, smallpox and typhoid. Filipinos had it worse – an estimate of two hundred thousand Filipinos died from malnutrition and disease in a period of three years, according to the US Department of State, Office of the Historian.
A visiting French physician, Paul de la Gironiere, wrote, “Day and night, the streets of Manila were full of carts conveying the dead.” There were not enough healthy people left to take care of the sick or bury the corpses. Even while people mourned at a funeral, they too were seized by the disease and in a few hours died.
Dr. Jose P. Bantug, a writer and medical doctor, reported, “Bodies remained unburied for days. They filled the atmosphere for blocks around San Lazaro Hospital with the stench of decaying flesh. When the epidemic was at its height there were as many as 1,300 deaths in Manila alone. A single epidemic carried off from 15,000 to 20,000 victims, and in three months 30,000 people perished.”
There were several reasons for the multiple epidemics. Philippine towns were located along rivers and people thought it would be okay to simply throw their garbage into the water along with human refuse. Butchers would toss dead pigs and chickens into the river and farmers’ carabaos, along with the rest of the population, would use them as toilets. Women would do the laundry in the water, and people would bathe in this germ-infested community garbage river/public toilet as some still do.
Dr. Bantug continues, “The common folk considered epidemics as visitations from heaven or scourges sent by God, so that their efforts to combat them were limited to novenas. It was a common belief that the devil himself came down in person to announce the epidemic, assuming the form and dress of a man but with feet similar to that of a cock. They called him salot and he appeared in the house at night in the form of a well-recognized person. The one who answered the first call died instantaneously.”
When the Americans saw how literally piss-poor our sanitation was and how we were trying to save ourselves with the power of prayer alone, the provost marshal shook his head in disbelief and issued General Order No. 15, creating the first board of health in Manila.
One of the first problems that the new board of health faced was the Black Death. Yes, that Black Death – the one that destroyed 50% of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages. Carried by rats and fleas, the board of health’s course of action was to rat-proof every building they could, lay mousetraps everywhere and poison sacks of rice and vegetables with arsenic.
Of course, when the local population isn’t 100 percent aware of the poison in their rice, things are bound to go south from there. Thankfully the Americans foresaw this and put up first aid stations at every other corner. Soon enough, the sick were flocking to them.
As for the rats themselves, you’d think that the board of health would simply bring cats to chase them out and kill them, correct? But no – the cats would eat the rats and be infected with the plague in turn, so the board decided to use the next best logical solution – Filipinos.
Human rat catchers were dressed in high-collared, long-sleeved shirts and trousers with kerosene on their necks, wrists and ankles, and they went after the rodents with a vengeance. Health officials wrote, “Filipinos grew unbelievably skilled in catching rats with their hands. A man would grab a swift rat and before it could bite stun it against a wall.”
There was a five centavo bounty for every rat tail that was presented to the authorities. Some Filipinos, devious as we are, decided to just breed rats and cut off their tails to present to the local health inspector.
The bounty system was soon abolished.
Eventually the plague died down, and the rat population was steadily being depleted. The plague only managed to sneak back into the country twice after 1899 – once in 1905 and another time in 1912.
In 1902, however, we had another problem on our hands – cholera, brought in from Hong Kong. A Chinese vessel with a cargo of vegetables infected with the dangerous disease was stopped by American port authorities upon learning of the infection, and sent back to its port of origin.
In anger, the Chinese captain threw his cargo into Manila bay, leaving cabbages floating in the water. The American port officials, thoroughly satisfied that they had stopped cholera from entering the country, were about to pat themselves on the back until they noticed hungry Filipinos diving into the water to retrieve the contaminated vegetables. Disaster.
The board of health ordered the United States Army Medical Corps to conduct house to house searches and carry away the sick in ambulances.
The common people saw this as a violation of their privacy, as the men in blue would just storm into a house without prior notice, conduct an inspection and simply carry off sick family members on a mat and stuff them in an ambulance.
Eventually, the epidemic became so bad that Manila had to be cordoned off from the neighboring provinces. Roads, railroads and ferries were all closed by order of the board of health and 275 new policemen and Philippine constables were sworn in to make sure that nobody entered or left the city.
Still… the Filipinos found a way to spread the infection. People slipped out of Manila under cover of darkness to enter Cavite and the neighboring provinces. It just got worse from there on out.
At the height of the disease, a fisherman coming in from the sea reported a miracle – bubbles rising in salt water in the shape of a cross! He had tasted the water, and found it sweet – it must be a cure from God! A priest was brought to the site and proclaimed the water to be miraculous, blessing it. Soon, hundreds of believers rowed into the middle of the bay to drink the sweet, life-giving water… until the American health commissioner went to see the “miracle” for himself. As it turned out, the “miracle” was the result of a broken sewage pipe, and people had been drinking sewage. The health commissioner promptly had the “holy” pipe sealed, despite the public outcry from believers.
Boiling water and cooking food well was a sure-fire way to kill any bacteria. The health officials passed on this information to the public, but they misinterpreted it hilariously – families were asked if they were boiling their drinking water, and one replied, “Yes, regularly – (we drink) one teaspoon (of boiling water) three times a day.”
The Filipino habit of eating with one’s hands helped spread disease. In an effort to combat this, knife and fork clubs were introduced at schools in the hope that children would teach their parents how to eat with utensils and use proper hygiene.
Sooner or later, the Americans got everything under control through regular check-ups, vaccinations, and spontaneous visits from the local military police to carry away the sick. A report states, cheerfully: “Formerly as many as 40,000 deaths in one year were caused by smallpox, but since September 29, 1898, about 20,000,000 vaccinations have been performed from one end of the archipelago to the other and the disease is now rare in most portions of the islands.”
Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on January 27, 2013.