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Cocolitzi to Swine Flu

3 May 2009

When the history of the “Mexican Flu” (we’ll probably be stuck with that name) is written, the story should be that while everyone was losing their heads and acting stupid, the Mexicans took rather drastic measures, but managed to contain the illness.  How Mexico dealt with — and was affected by — previous disease outbreaks was the subject of a short article by  Tania Molina Ramírez  for Jornada on 24 April (my translation):

During the well-documented outbreak of what was called cocoliztli (and was probably typhus, Bernardino de Sahagún asked some of the indigenous teachers of the Colegio de Tlatelolco how previous epidemics were treated.  He was told that while there were some medications available for the afflicted, mostly people relied on prayers for the intercession of the god Tezcatlipoca, writes anthropologist and historian Miguel Leon-Hidalgo. The cocoliztli epidemic occurred about 1540, the afflicted including Sahagún.

On the other hand, Rafael Valdez Aguilar, professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa writes (in the magazine Elementos, published by the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla )  that “between 1450 and 1456, there was a great epidemic in Mexico associated with several years of bad harvests and consecutive years of famine. Defined by the texcocanos chroniclers as a “pestilential cold” it was without a doubt an influenza epidemic, complicated by opportunistic illnesses that showed no mercy to population already debilitated by hunger. We also know of similar epidemics in 1496 in Tehuantepec and neighboring communities and of one in 1507 in Tuctepec and Intzitlán, that also produced the great mortality in the central part of the territory that today constitutes Mexico”.

In la Relación de la Conquista, written in 1528 and including in Visión de los vencidos (edited by Miguel León-Portilla) one reads for 2-Flint year: “This was the year that Motecuhzoma died, when they (the Spaniards) were based in Acuenco and went to Tlaxcala.  There the epidemic spread: coughs, pustules and fever.”

This was probably smallpox [my addition].

In the last century, in 1902, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Mazatlán, and a smallpox epidemic.

And, in 1918, there was the flu pandemic, the so-called Spanish influenza.

However, Rafael Valdez Aguilar assures us that, despite the name, the disease originated with the United States Army in Funstone, Kansas, the first known fatality on 4 March of that year.  “Spanish flu” reached Mexico in June from its neighbor to the north.  Madagascar, South Africa, New Zealand, Guatemala and Mexico appear among the countries most punished by the outbreak, with mortality rates oscillating between ww and 35 percent of those afflicted.

Valdez writes that “according to E. Oakes Jordan, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 in Mexico – which then had 14 million inhabitants – took 500,000 lives”.

Between 1948 and 1955 1,100 cases of poliomielitis were registered each year. After a vaccination campaign, by the 1970s, there were only about 600 per year.  After 1986, the number of polio cases dropped progressively to the point where by 1990 there were only seven cases a year, and five years later, the Pan-American Organization of the Health certified that polio had been eradicated in Mexico.

Approaching the present time, there were two measles outbreaks, both originated in Asia.  The first, in 2003, put the Federal District and the State of Mexico at risk.   A year later, the same virus was found in the Federal District, Hidalgo and the State of Mexico.

For more information on the history of the epidemics in Mexico, consult Ensayos sobre la historia de las epidemias en México (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social, 1982), compiled by Enrique Florescano and Elsa Malvido.

Also the bulletin Epidemiología is published by the Dirección General Adjunta de Epidemiología of the Secretaría de Salud every Monday (

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alejandrina Rauner permalink
    19 November 2012 6:43 pm

    When swine flu strucked, everyone was in disaray because it was a very deadly virus back then.`

    Remember to look out for our very own blog site


  1. Flu update: 3-May. “Stabilization Phase” « The Mex Files

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