Perhaps the disease with the highest morbidity rate on the westward trails, such as the Oregon Trail, was cholera. It is caused by a gram negative spiral bacillus called vibrio cholerae. Cholera infects the intestines, causing them to release fluids and electrolytes. This can lead to severe dehydration, along with painful gastrointestinal symptoms. Depending on the case, death can occur within hours or several days. Typically, this bacteria was spread (and still is today) through bad water. Poor hygiene and unhealthy diets at the time also added to the susceptibility of the disease. According to the Oregon~California Trails Association, “...people camped amid garbage left by previous parties, picked up the disease, and then went about spreading it, themselves…” In this way, cholera was also spread from wagon train to wagon train. At the time, there was really no way to treat it, therefore, many died from it. An example of how cholera spread through wagons is shown through this letter by Martha Freel in 1852, “...the sickness we have...sorry to say the deaths...Francis Freel died June 4, 1852, and Maria Freel followed the 6th, next came Polly Casner who died the 9th and LaFayette Freel soon ...died the 10th, Elizabeth Freel, wife of Amos...died the 11th, and her baby died the 17th. You see we have lost 7 persons in...
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...treatments of some of the so-called doctors of medicine. They dug two holes in the ground, about twenty inches apart. The patient lay stretched over the two,—vomit in one hole and purge in the other, and died stretched over the two…” The treatments for these diseases rarely worked, because they had no idea what a pathogen was and how it could be taken care of.
Even though there was no way to cure or prevent disease on the Westward Trails due to lack of hygiene and knowledge, nowadays there are antibiotics to get rid of any non antibiotic resistant bacterial disease, and vaccines to prevent many others.The pioneers traveling west encountered many diseases along the way, including cholera, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, and diphtheria. Poor hygiene and lack of knowledge led to the consistent spread of illness, which took its deadly toll on the many wagons heading west.
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