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Healthcare and Epidemics in Antiquity

Human civilizations have evolved through many years. The early forms of human civilization lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers. This type of lifestyle ideally meant that small communities would live together and move according to their migratory needs. Therefore, it would be uncommon for infections and diseases to spread across different groups and communities. This nomadic way of existence further meant that communities would rarely come into contact with each other, limiting the chances of infection spread. Animal domestication was also limited to small numbers and types of animals. Generally, this meant that the range of vectors and pathogens that humans were exposed to were also small. Generally, epidemics and infections in antiquity were limited by the nomadic lifestyle of the people, with the shift to settlements and city-like dwelling creating a haven for infection spread. Further, the limited understanding of health and healthcare systems in antiquity contributed to the wide spread of infections to epidemic status.

Viral and bacterial infections in antiquity were limited in their spread by the isolation of communities and villages. However the aggregation of people in city-like environments at the dawn of the agrarian era brought many people to settle in single locations. These cities attracted many people seeking to make a life for themselves, creating the prime conditions for disease spread (Alfani, Guido, and Murphy 335). The cities were poorly planned and lacked the basic amenities and resources, leading to severe outbreaks of measles and smallpox (Retief, François, and Cilliers 216). This way, they were prone to disease outbreaks such as cholera. The domestication of animals and the rise of animal markets meant that populations were exposed to a larger pool of pathogens and vectors harbored by the animals. Further, city-dwelling meant that populations would have to rely on economic activities to get money to purchase food. The economic dynamics of the new way of life meant that there would be higher rates of malnutrition and higher susceptibility to infection (Alfani, Guido, and Murphy 339). This was further compounded by the lack of an established science-based or formal healthcare system. This led to the high number of epidemics characteristic of antiquity.

The high number of epidemics in the changing civilizations prompted the development of healthcare systems. For instance, Early Mesopotamia is credited with the development of the first forms of healthcare, with Egypt forming the earliest recorded scientific approaches to disease and the human body. Early Mesopotamia records offer healers intricate knowledge of the human body and anatomy. Further, they developed theories about disease and the spread of infections. The healers in Mesopotamia were able to identify body organs and systems that they could then relate to different health conditions, such as inflammation for the liver and anger for the heart. While these ‘medical experts’ lacked the fundamental understanding of disease interactions with the body, they provided the basis for organized healthcare that would later reduce infection rates. However, this lack of knowledge of the disease led to the higher rates of disease spread in the early years of healthcare development in these civilizations.

The development of the earliest scientific inquiry into disease, infection, and epidemics can be traced to Ancient Greece. Ancient Greece medical manuscripts and texts report that the earliest forms of medical education and inquiry into the disease process were by the Greek philosophers and scientists. The Greek physicians had a better grasp and understanding of the human body and the disease process. They served as the pioneers of modern medicine. Ideally, their approach to medicine and infection treatment provided the basis for modern medicine. Their philosophy was that the human body exists in balance that leads to disease when offset. While their understanding of the human body was better, they still ignored the pathophysiology of disease (Retief, François, and Cilliers 216). They still had an external approach to disease. The lack of understanding of disease processes and treatments leads to alternative treatments such as blood leeches, blood-letting, and compounds such as mercury, which would otherwise cause more harm.

In conclusion, infections and epidemics were caused by the changing nature of human society. The rise of cities and organized living led to many diseases. Further, agriculture and domestication of animals led to the development of new diets and higher malnutrition rates that are argued to lead to weaker immunities. In antiquity, infections and epidemics were caused by the high level of exposure to pathogens and the limited understanding of disease processes.

Works Cited

Alfani, Guido, and Tommy E. Murphy. “Plague and lethal epidemics in the pre-industrial world.” the Journal of Economic History 77.1 (2017): 314-343.

Retief, François, and Louise Cilliers. “Measles in antiquity and the Middle Ages.” SAMJ: South African Medical Journal 100.4 (2017): 216-217.

Rifkin, Riaan F., et al. “Ancient oncogenesis, infection and human evolution.” Evolutionary Applications 10.10 (2017): 949-964.


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