Epidemics and Prevention in 18th and 19th Century Macedonia
Epidemics and infectious diseases left Macedonia damaged in the past. The most noted diseases are plague, cholera, diphtheria, leprosy, malaria, smallpox and some others.
In the Ottoman Era the main reason for epidemics was the Turkish army coming from Asia and Africa. The biggest hotspot for spreading a contagion was Thessaloniki because of its harbor.
The first records of the major epidemic outbreaks in the Balkans are from the 16th century. They were written by traveling writers. In those, the often mentioned Macedonia, especially the cities Skopje, Thessaloniki, Bitola and Veles.
In the 18th and 19th century, epidemics formed a bigger wave in Macedonia. Some of the reasons were the suitable climate, low healthcare culture, poor sanitary and hygiene, poverty, improper food distribution and storage, and others.
A traveler, in the beginning of the 18th century, passed through Skopje on his way from Dubrovnik to Istanbul. He wrote that he couldn’t enter the city of Skopje because of the plague existence in this city. Apparently, the death toll in the city was already over 2000. Later on, in 1712 to 1714 Thessaloniki was also swept by the plague. Over there, 8000 people suffered.
A similar epidemic took over Macedonia in 1738
The deacon in the monastery “Prohor Pcinski” noted that in this period the smallpox reigned. The Venetian consul in Durres in the 1740s wrote that in Skopje and Bitola 5-6 people dies daily from the plague. Although, in Thessaloniki 300-500 people died each day in 1742, mostly Turks and Jews. In 1757 in Macedonia 3500-4000 children died from the smallpox.
The French writer Jean-Claude Faveyrial wrote about the tragedy that struck the small town Uzungevo. The plague ravaged there in 1741 leaving only 12 families remaining. Many of these traveling writers mentioned that one of the biggest reasons for such diseases in the Balkans were the many swamps. The main reason for many infected citizens were the stale waters of river Vardar near Thessaloniki.
The beginning of the 19th century set off quietly. Only in rural environments noticed appearance of transmitting diseases. Then in 1831-1835 in Veles the plague and cholera had a huge impact. The citizens remembered this period as “the big fire” which resembles the dimension of the epidemic.
“Rumors are coming from Serres that cholera morbus have appeared in the city. If this is found to be true, it would be devastating for Thessaloniki. Many visitors come from there.”
Charnaud mentions the epidemic once again in 1832
The new British consul Charles Blunt notes the new epidemic from 1835 with а hotspot in Istanbul. It spread fast throughout the Balkans and the most affected were the cities of Prilep, Drama and Nevrokop.
Prevention to protect the living
In general, one of the main preventive measures for protection from transmitted infections were the living conditions. The low standards of personal and home hygiene were in fact the biggest reasons for transmitting an infection.
Ami Boue described the situation in European Turkey and Macedonia in 1840. According to his evaluations the epidemics from the last years in these countries took over 100 000 lives.
There were no medical institutions for this purpose and medics weren’t recruited. The people who suffered the most were new mothers, infants, sensitive children. As well as the sick who asked for advice from witch doctors.
These epidemics had great impact on the way of living
Many workshops and the commerce stopped business. Traders would spread sickness wherever they traveled, so this was one cautionary step. Construction was put on hold as well. Churches and monasteries used to take care of the sick.
The famous cholera impact on Europe and North America happened in 1832. People believed it came from the east. The consequences people felt left traces on the generations to come.
The Ottoman empire was commonly criticized for not making actual preventive efforts. They didn’t control the people’s commute and encouraged that prayer was the best option and solution. Finally, The first systematic and official government safety measure was applied in the middle of the 19th century. With the major cholera outbreak in Istanbul they established a quarantine of five days. It applied to the ships that arrived to every port in the Balkans.
Accordingly, isolation of infected families in their homes was a precaution. The occurrence of educated doctors, nurses and medical students was the reason for this. In particular, they recommended to incinerate the clothes of the sick.
When death occurred, the house of the deceased was thoroughly disinfected. In 1872 Thessaloniki saw the first quarantine station. Other cities received better preventive services as well.
To conclude, the epidemics situation in Macedonia finally improved. However, the foreign doctors used to expand their countries’ propaganda instead of helping the population. As a result, people turned to traditional medicine once more.