The major epidemic infections: a gift from the Old World to the New?

Panminerva Med. 1999 Mar;41(1):78-84.


With the discovery of the New World, the Europeans flocked to America and with them spread infectious diseases. During long sea voyages the agents of these diseases increased their diffusion capacity in a suitable environment. Lack of hygiene, fatigue and privations, a diet without vitamins and many persons kept in confined spaces were the essential features of this environment. Sick persons, whose health conditions worsened during the journey to the New World, carried the germs of infectious diseases. The first disease to appear in the New World was smallpox described in 1518 in Hispaniola. From there the disease moved rapidly to Mexico in 1520, exterminating most of the Aztecs, Guatemala and to the territories of Incas from 1525-26, killing most of them and the King himself. The second disease, influenza, appeared in La Isabela, a few years later, causing a heavy epidemic between 1558 and 1559. Other diseases followed such as yellow fever and malaria. So Europeans and these invisible and mortal agents caused enormous destruction of American populations. In fact historians have estimated that beginning from early 1500, in only 50 years the population of Peru and Mexico fell from 60 to 10 million; in the latter country, in one century, the populations fell from an initial 10 million to only 2 million.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Americas
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology
  • Communicable Diseases / history*
  • Communicable Diseases / transmission
  • Disease Outbreaks / history*
  • Europe
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American / history
  • Population Dynamics