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Yellow Fever





Although yellow fever is considered a tropical disease found in Africa and South America, the United States suffered a great loss of human life from epidemics that occurred from the mid-1800’s until the early 1900’s.  Cities in the southern states and port cities along the Atlantic coast were especially hit hard. 

The reason for the yellow fever outbreaks was a mystery to medical doctors.  Many speculated that the fever was caused by filthy conditions in the cities or that was being brought to the area by people infected with the disease.  Many cities set up quarantined areas to separate the sick from those who were not sick.  Ships were quarantined for a specific number of days before anyone or anything could be brought into the ports.

Some of the cities surrounding Arkansas with high death rates included New Orleans, Shreveport, Vicksburg, and Memphis.  In an attempt to keep yellow fever from entering the city of Little Rock, local doctors formed a board of health and set up specific guidelines for quarantining the city.  Counties through out the state began to set up boards of health using the same guideline for quarantine as Little Rock.  It appeared to pay off.  Although, several Arkansans died from yellow fever, the state did not see the death rate that surrounding areas encountered.  The boards of health refused to let anyone from areas that had yellow fever to enter the area.  People had to have a certificate of health from board-approved physicians to be able to enter the state.

The quarantines helped to prevent further spread of the fever but no one knew exactly why.  All they knew was that a large number of people were dying from this fever.

Yellow fever is caused by a flavivirus called the yellow fever virus. The Aedes aegypti is a specific type of mosquito that is the primary carrier for the virus that causes yellow fever in humans.  This type of mosquito can be found in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.  The greatest number of these mosquitoes occurs along the Gulf Coastal states. 

Baton Rouge Swamp

There are three stages that individuals with yellow fever go through.  The first stage will last about 3-4 days and consists of headaches, jaundice, appetite loss, muscle aches and vomiting.

The second stage is considered a time of remission.  The fever and other symptoms disappear and most of the people will begin to recover.  Other will enter the third stage known as the intoxication stage.  It is the most dangerous stage.  During this stage the kidney, liver, and brain begin to shut down or functions inadequately.  As a result the patient may suffer renal failure, liver failure, heart failure, or suffer from dysfunction of the brain that would result in death.

The treatment consisted of fluids, cold compresses, warm baths and bed rest.  If they remained alive for 7-10 days then they would survive and would be immune to the fever.

Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay of Cuba began experimenting with mosquitoes and human volunteers.  He associated yellow fever with mosquitoes.  After many experiments, he found yellow fever was transmitted via mosquitoes.  The mosquitoes carried the disease after biting someone who had yellow fever.  His ideas were dismissed for several years before being taken seriously by Walter Reed and others.  They began to do their own experiments that supported Dr. Finlay’s earlier experiments.  Dr. Reed’s group determined that it took 10-12 days after it had bitten an infected person before it was able to transmit the disease to another. 

Yellow fever was controlled with sanitation, draining mosquito breeding grounds, and quarantining ships that arrived from infected areas.  The disease has since been determined to affect monkeys and other animals but is only caused by the spread of the virus by mosquitoes.

Cypress Swamp 1              Cypress Swamp 2

Cypress Swamp located on the Natchez Trace, north of Jackson, Mississippi


Research the virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.  Identify areas of the world where yellow fever is prevalent.  Compare and constract the circumstances of those areas with areas of the United states during the periods of time from the mid-1800's to early 1900's.  What impact did the outbreaks of yellow fever have on the medical profession in the United States during the mid-1800's and early 1900's?

Arkansas Biology Framework:

1. Compare and constrast the structures and characteristics of viruses (lytic and lysogenic cycles) with non-living and living things.

2. Evaluate the medical and economic importance of viruses

3. Analyze the effects of human population growth and technology on the environment/biosphere4. Assess current world issues applying scientific themes (e.g., global changes in climatte, epidemic, pandemids, ozone depletion, UV radiation, natural resources, use of technology, and public policy)


Arkansas Department of Education Curriculum Biology Framework

Yellow Fever

Womack, M. 1993. The yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. Retrieved November 6, 2008, from Wins Beats, Vol. 5(4):4.  Web site:

Yellow Fever of 1873, in Shreveport, LA
Boston Medical and Surgical Journal Volume XC
Boston: David Clapp & Son, Publishers, 1874

The Quarantine at Little Rock, Arkansas, During August, September, and October, 1878, Against the Yellow Fever Epidemic in Memphis and the Mississippi Valley by R. G. Jennings, MD of Little Rock – Paper Presented at the annual meeting in Richmond, VA, November 21, 1878 –
Public Health Pap Ref. 1878; 4: 223-227

Arkansas Yellow Fever
Transcribed by Tina Easley  - 08/07/2004

Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever


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