Basic Disease Information


Measles, caused by the Rubeola virus, was first identified as a virus in 1911 and it was discovered that vaccination would prevent the spread, causing lifelong immunity. In 1762, a French Physicians by the name of Tissot noticed that measles rarely resulted in death and when it did, it was due to medical complication. Yet, at the end of the century, it was concluded that measles was more common, dangerous, and widespread than people believed. Measles, also known as “Covered Wagon Disease” and “the disease of large cities”, was coined these names due to its ability to travel in human communities and spread via large groups of people. (7)

Once infected, the Rubeola virus takes 2-4 days to replicate inside respiratory cells and to spread to lymph nodes. The second round of viral production occurs when the virus enters blood stream. Next, the infection circulating in the blood flows to various body parts. During the final 8-12 day incubation period, fever, weakness, and loss of appetite is followed by hours of coughing and runny nose and eyes. Lastly, cells in the capillaries become infected and interact with the body’s natural immune system and a rash develops and spread on face, arms, legs, and the rest of the body. (7)


Small-pox, caused by the Variola major or minor virus, was seen to change the course of history by killing generals, kings, and decimating the enemy. When this disease was first discovered, it often involved famine and starvation since infected people became too unable to work on their respective farms or to cultivate or prepare food. (7)

Once contaminated, the virus first infects cells in the mouth and nose, and then spread to mucous membranes and travels to lymph nodes. Variola major or minor then gets in the blood stream and moves throughout the spleen, liver, and lungs. In these locations, the virus replicates, producing a large infectious viral population. The incubation period is between 12-17 days from initial exposure. From here, the virus invades the blood again, which ends the incubation period and the person becomes very ill showing symptoms of high fever, muscles pain, abdominal pain, and vomiting occur. After this, the virus continues to spread to the skin causing eruptions for 3-4 days. An obnoxious rash appears, raised skin fills with fluid, and the lesions contain infection virus. Infected persons can infect others anytime after the rash appears and when the scabs are falling apart. Variola major or minor contaminates clothing and linen for several months after the initial incident. (7)


Tuberculosis is caused by the microbacteria labeled Mycobacterium tuberculosis and was found in body remains in Egyptian mummies and in pre-columbian human remains in South America. This disease is primarily airborne and due to poor hygiene and is spread easily among humans in tight social conditions. (7)

Tuberculosis is easiest identified by the extreme symptoms that the microbacteria causes. These include coughing, fever, weight loss, and night sweats. These symptoms are common in other diseases as well, so many soldiers lived with Tuberculosis and were being treated for another illness. When a soldier was initially infected, the symptoms would normally go away with basic treatment of other diseases. When this microbacteria’s effects would return, the symptoms were elevated due to the improper treatment initially, and this eluded to a higher death rate for soldiers. Physical defects were also apt to occur due to this mistreatment. At times, people had to undergo a lot to stop either or both lungs from collapsing, which usually included air being pumped into the diaphragm manually. (7)


The bacterium Treponema pallidum, more commonly known as syphilis, is one of the more overlooked common diseases of the Civil War due to its sexually transmitted nature. This bacterium was brought back from Europe in the late 1400s by Christopher Columbus and was first documented in French troops during a war in Naples. (7)

This disease is easy to overlook because the symptoms are not painful. These symptoms include ulcers on the genitals, hands, or mouth, and could appear as a rash on the back, chest, or palms. Today, it is detected in the blood or during a visual examination. After 2 years of minimal to no treatment, the infection may cause serious health problems later in life which could lead to heart, brain, or nervous system malfunction. Syphilis is divided in to three stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary. During the primary stage, lesions may appear on the genitalia but usually heal. During the secondary stage of syphilis, one may see skin rash, mucous membrane lesions, enlarged lymph nodes and a fever. This can be followed by a period of latency where one may not observe the visible symptoms, which causes a relapse because people often neglect treatment if they can’t see lesions. During the tertiary stage, erosion of the tissue or bone may occur, as well as blood being unable to flow through the aorta. Individuals may also experience dementia. (7)

Typhoid Fever

Typhoid fever, also known as Salmonella typhi, is a devastating plague that has been known to wipe out large masses of populations for centuries. Around 430-424 BC, the fever killed one-third of the populations of Athens, including their leader Pericles. This disease is especially dangerous because it is very easy for complications to accompany further disease when treating typhoid fever. (7)

During the first week of Salmonella typhi contamination, fever is experienced and rises daily. Headache, weakness and fatigue, cough, loss of appetite, pain in the abdomen, irregular bowel patterns, and rash occur. During the second week (if treatment has not been provided), a continuation of high fever, considerable weight loss, and an extremely distended abdomen is experienced. Rose-colored spots will appear on the upper torso and are able to cause severe lesions. If treatment has not been sought by the third week of typhoid fever, delirium, and extreme exhaustion characterized by a motionless state with eyes half-closed known as the “typhoid state” occurs. By this time, life threatening complications develop. In the fourth week, improvement may occur. A gradual decreases in temperature usually happens over a 10 day period. Signs and symptoms can occur up to two weeks after the fever has subsided. (7)

Diarrhea and Dysentery 

Throughout history, infectious diarrhea has been associated with over crowded areas, poor sanitation and war. Although infectious diarrhea has existed in the earliest of times, measures for prevention and research were not widely considered until the modern era of public health.  (5)

Diarrhea is characterized by abdominal bloating or cramps, thin or loose stool with water, sense of urgency to have a bowel movement, and nausea and vomiting. Diarrhea isn’t dangerous when treated, but ignorance of this can cause death and serious illness via dehydration. Dysentery is the swelling of the intestines, which causes blood to be present in diarrhea. It is brought on via bacteria, viruses, parasites, or protozoa, and is a type of gastroenteritis. Mild stomach pains and frequent passing of loose stool characterize dysentery. While this only lasts a few days, presence of mucus, pus, and blood in the stool pass in large quantities. In the more extreme cases, a liter of fluid may be passed in an hour. Commonly, nausea and abdominal pain can occur. Occasionally, the amoebic parasite may invade the blood stream and spread to the major organs such as the brain, liver, and lungs. (5)


Pneumonia, also known as Streptococcus pneumoniae, is an inflammatory condition of the lungs that preys on the weak. Being wounded via battle field injuries or being infected with another disease made soldiers the perfect candidate for this infection. Streptococcus pneumoniae is spread by inhalation of air borne droplets transmitted by an infected persons’ sneeze or cough. (7)

Pneumonia is characterized by severe cough, and occasional coughing up of greenish or yellowish mucus, a mild to high fever, shaking or chills, and shortness of breath when performing small tasks. Chest pain, headache, excessive sweating or clamminess, loss of appetite, and confusion are some less common side effects. Pneumonia is detected with a stethoscope, which can be tricky to diagnose. A more thorough exam is done by X-ray, but this technology wasn’t available when this disease was more common, so misdiagnosis was common. (7)


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