How the Jews stopped the typhus epidemic in the Warsaw ghetto, in the worst possible conditions

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Research conducted using up-to-date mathematical models and historical documents points to community health programs and the application of social distance as the most likely explanations for the surprising and mysterious collapse of a typhus epidemic in the Warsaw ghetto

A boy raising his hands while evacuating Jews from the bunkers during the subjugation of the Warsaw Uprising, 1943 German Federal Archives / Public domain

By: University of Technology of Australia Translation: Ziv Adaki

In the face of unprecedented overcrowding, hunger and many living on the streets – the outbreak of a contagious disease is supposed to be almost unstoppable, but during World War II, Jewish doctors in the Warsaw ghetto stopped it. Children living on a street in the Warsaw ghetto, 1941, NIEZNANY / UNKNOWN / PUBLIC DOMAIN

Research done using up-to-date mathematical models and historical documents points to community health programs and the application of social distance as the most plausible explanations for the surprising and mysterious collapse of a typhus epidemic in the Warsaw ghetto, described by survivors at the conference.

In the midst of the Corona plague, historians and epidemiologists seek to learn from past outbreaks of infectious diseases and have found such an almost defiant outbreak in the Warsaw ghetto, in Nazi-occupied Poland, during World War II. While dealing with extreme overcrowding, hunger and appalling sanitary conditions, the Jews trapped in the ghetto managed to control the spread of the climb and saved about 100,000 people. A new study, showing how they managed to do this, is a mirror image of the efforts of the world today, under conditions that are supposed to be infinitely simple.
After conquering Poland, the Nazis imprisoned more than 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, in an area of ​​about 3.4 square kilometers. For comparison, in the whole of Manhattan, a quarter of the population lives in an area 17 times larger.

“The Warsaw Ghetto was a perfect habitat for the typhoid bacterium to spread, and it did spread to the Jewish population like wildfire,” said Prof. Levy Stone of RMIT University in his statement.
Indeed, about 30,000 ghetto residents died of typhus, but three times as many survived. Moreover, the plague stopped long before it infected most of the population. And no less amazing, the infection rate dropped precisely when it was expected to skyrocket, in light of the severe winter of 1941–1942.

Climbing spread more widely in the winter, but the rate of infection dropped in the winter of 1941–1942. Credit: Stone et al / Science Advances
Climbing spread more widely in the winter, but the rate of infection dropped in the winter of 1941–1942. Credit: Stone et al / Science Advances

“Many thought it was a miracle,” says Stone, who has teamed up with scientists from around the world to study the spread of the climb. In the journal Science Advances he showed how science, and especially the mobilization of Jewish doctors, led to the halting of the plague. Although the disease we are dealing with today is different from typhus, the outbreak of typhus has been defeated through epidemiological methods similar to those that epidemiologists promote today: sanitary programs, self-isolation and physical distance.
And a crucial aspect, those imprisoned in the ghetto obeyed the recommendations of the doctors.

Stone was able to reach these conclusions thanks to the insistence of the ghetto doctors to document what was happening. This documentation is the most substantial source of information we have on the effects of famine, but the information contained in it about the typhus epidemic has not yet been investigated using modern epidemiological and statistical methods.

“I spent hours and hours in libraries all over the world looking for rare documents or publications where I could find details about the interventions that were implemented and the epidemic rates themselves,” Stone says. He found evidence of hundreds of lectures given by doctors before the public in the ghetto on the importance of personal hygiene, self-isolation when sick and physical distance to stop the spread of typhus, as well as an underground medical school trained medical students in infection control.
The climb also raged in cities in Ukraine, where Jews were imprisoned as well, and in one of them, Rahorod, he was arrested as soon as soap production began and cleaning services were assimilated, which supports Stone’s claim.

Stone and his co-authors note that the Nazis used typhus, which threatened the health of the Germans, as a justification for convening the Jews in the ghetto, and later also for sending them to the extermination camps. “This is an example of humanity’s ability to turn against itself, based on race-based epidemiological principles, just because of the emergence of a bacterium,” they write. In the face of an epidemic that disproportionately causes the deaths of ethnic minorities, we should not assume that such atrocities are a thing of the past.

Historical analysis underscores the critical importance of community cooperation and active mobilization in efforts to defeat epidemics and epidemics such as COVID-19, rather than relying too heavily on government regulation.

To the scientific paper

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