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Timeline / Colonizers and Resistance / AD 1520–62: ‘Virgin-soil’ epidemics devastate Native populations

AD 1520–62: ‘Virgin-soil’ epidemics devastate Native populations

“Virgin-soil” epidemics sweep through populations with no prior exposure to a particular infectious disease and consequently no immunity to it. Almost every disease that Europeans carry to the Americas in the 1500s causes a virgin-soil epidemic because every Native American exposed to it is susceptible. Even if a Native person survives a smallpox epidemic, immunity to that disease does not extend to other diseases. Entire families perish when all members are stricken, leaving no one able to care for the ill.

“The diseases crossing the ocean during the sixteenth century usually caused so-called virgin-soil epidemics, because every Native American with whom they came in contact was susceptible. Those Natives who survived the 1520 smallpox epidemic became immune to that virus, and it seems not to have recurred until 1562. Smallpox immunity protected no one against measles, plague, or influenza, however. Often entire families perished during virgin-soil epidemics because all members were stricken simultaneously, leaving no one capable of fetching water or preparing food.” —Henry Dobyns, “Diseases,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life from Paleo-Indians to the Present, 1996

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