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What’s the Issue? Epidemic of Yellow Fever During Construction of Panama Canal

At the turn of the 20th century, construction of the Panama Canal was at a standstill. What today is a key shipping route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was formerly a breeding ground for disease, particularly Yellow Fever. Yellow Fever, or “Yellow Jack”, is a viral vector-borne illness that can result in high fever, vomiting, and severe pain. If left untreated, the disease can progress and ravage the liver, which results in jaundice, severe abdominal pain, internal bleeding and, ultimately, death. This disease claimed the lives of thousands of workers during the construction of the Panama Canal. If research efforts to understand the transmission of Yellow Fever had not been initiated, more workers would have died and this key trading route would not have been constructed.

Research to Practice: Research Leads to Control of Yellow Fever and Future Benefits

U.S. military physician General Walter Reed had a different approach to looking at the disease. Rather than attempting to discover the viral agent that causes Yellow Fever, Reed concerned himself with the ways of its transmission. On August 1, 1900, Reed and three other men in the "Reed Commission" visited the home of Carlos Finlay, a Cuban physician and scientist who had developed a "mosquito hypothesis". The Reed Commission continued the work of Dr. Finlay and demonstrated through scientific research that Aedes aegypti mosquitoes could transmit Yellow Fever. In his research, Reed also disproved the theory that the disease was spread through contact with clothing and materials tainted with body fluids.

How was Reed’s research discovery used to control Yellow Fever? After Walter Reed documented that Yellow Fever was transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, Major William C. Gorgas, Chief Sanitary Officer in Havana, Cuba, used Reed's discovery to control Yellow Fever. In February 1901, Gorgas instituted vector control activities in Havana to destroy Aedes aegypti breeding sites. By September of that year, Gorgas declared that Yellow Fever had been eliminated from Havana. Because of his success in Cuba, Gorgas was appointed chief sanitary officer in the Panama Canal Zone. He used the same strategy of destroying Aedes aegypti breeding sites to break the Yellow Fever transmission cycle. Houses were inspected for possible breeding sites and standing water receptacles were emptied. This mosquito clean-up campaign enabled the United States to resume construction of the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914.

What next? Support Research of Other Tropical Diseases

The history of Yellow Fever research efforts is inspiring and gives hope to those working towards the control of tropical diseases. Seeing that the use of scientific research led to the control of Yellow Fever supports the idea that research for health is a valuable investment.

One such laboratory focusing on tropical disease research is the Gorgas Institute. The Institute was an initiative of Dr. Belisario Porras, President of Panama, in 1921, to honor the distinguished Dr. William Crawford Gorgas. Housing a Scientific Library where the original publications of all the Institute’s prestigious researchers can be found, the collection is oriented towards research in tropical medicine. The Gorgas Memorial Laboratory is recognized at the international level and has more than 50 years of experience in research and control of tropical parasitic diseases, such as Malaria, Chagas, Toxoplasmosis, Leishmaniasis, as well as prevalent viruses and their vectors. The Serum Bank with nearly 100,000 sera collected by the Institute has resulted in hundreds of original scientific publications. The Gorgas Memorial Laboratory became an executing unit of the Ministry of Health in 1990 and acts as Reference Center for Central America for some viral diseases. Its principal mission is to produce high-level scientific information for strategic planning, decision-making, and the evaluation of actions by the Ministry of Health.

These kinds of institutes are carrying out the work necessary to control and possibly eliminate preventable infectious diseases that primarily affect developing nations. By supporting research laboratories like the Gorgas Institute, we can promote better health for all.

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