Eighty years ago, between October and November 1940, Nazi Germany, which had invaded and annexed Poland a year earlier, turned a section of the Polish capital, Warsaw, into a large prison where nearly half a million Jews were confined. .
In the so-called Warsaw ghetto, the largest in Europe, not only the huge Jewish population of Poland was locked up, but also Jews deported from Germany who were taken there on their way to their final destination: the Treblinka concentration camp.
The close to 450,000 people Trapped in the Warsaw ghetto, they represented about 30% of the total population of the Polish capital, but the size of the place where they lived – an area of 3.4 km2 – was equivalent to only 2.4% of the city.
There were, on average, about 9 people per room and the Nazis reduced food rations to 10% of what would have been a normal diet.
It was in this context of overcrowding and famine that a great typhus epidemic.
The disease, which is caused by bacteria transmitted through lice and other arthropods, causes a high fever, muscle pain and a skin rash, and at the time it killed between 10% and 40% of those infected.
One of the most famous victims of typhus during World War II was Ana Frank, who died of illness in the Nazi Bergen-Belsen death camp in 1945.
Already during World War I typhus had hit troops hard on the Eastern Front, killing more than 3 million people in countries such as Russia, Poland and Romania.
In this context, everything suggested that typhus would wipe out the captive population in the Warsaw ghetto.
But just before winter came, in October 1941, after some 100,000 people had contracted the disease and more than 25,000 had died from it, something happened that many have considered miraculous.
When everyone expected that the cold would generate a peak of infections, the opposite happened: these began to decrease exponentially and the epidemic slowed to a halt.
In the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, a group of Australian researchers wanted to find out how typhus was controlled in such difficult conditions.
To this end, RMIT University researchers (formerly known as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) used mathematical models and documents from the time describing life in the ghetto to study the progress of the disease.
Thus, they were able to determine that the main factor that stopped the epidemic was public health measures implemented by the ghetto doctors, a tool that today is also considered key to curbing the spread of covid-19.
The study, titled “Extraordinary Reduction of the Massive Typhus Epidemic in the Warsaw Ghetto,” revealed that people in the ghetto tried to maintain social distancing.
“The transmission dynamics of typhus in the Warsaw ghetto was generally through contact or proximity to an already infected individual, as this allowed the lice to pass from host to host in the densely populated ghetto,” the work notes. .
“Social distancing was considered basic common sense by all, although it was not imposed on a mandatory basis, “he highlights.
However, the overcrowding made it very difficult to isolate oneself from others.
Besides the lack of space, other conditions in the ghetto like poor hygiene, dirt and cold weather multiplied the presence of lice, the vectors of typhus.
Meanwhile, the lethality of the disease increased sharply due to the desnutrition, which made infected people not have a strong immune system to be able to fight the infection.
Even those who managed to recover from typhus “often starved to death in convalescence,” say the authors, who estimate that in total some 100,000 people died from the combination of typhus and starvation.
But a fortuitous event allowed the ghetto doctors to improve food conditions, strengthening the immune system.
In May 1941 the Germans decided that the productive force represented by the Jews of the ghetto should not be wasted and they increased rations to some so that they could work.
They also turned a blind eye to food smuggling.
This allowed the ghetto leaders to organize a “feeding program” which consisted of a network of community kitchens. Thus the general nutrition was improved.
On the other hand, many courses to educate about health and hygiene, and brigades were formed to inspect the houses.
A clandestine university was even created to train young medical students and scientific studies were undertaken on the phenomenon of hunger and epidemics.
“Ultimately, the Department of Health and the Jewish Council developed complex and elaborate sanitation programs and measures with the goal of eradicating typhus,” the researchers say.
Ghetto survivors recall that one of the prevention strategies used was the use of a fine comb, which was used to catch and kill the nits, the eggs of lice.
According to the study, all these measures combined they managed to contain typhus.
“There are no other reasonable alternative hypotheses to explain the early disappearance of the epidemic at the beginning of winter,” they conclude in their work, which was published last July in the journal Science Advances.
Excuse to kill
The story of how the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto managed to defeat typhus is particularly poignant considering that the Nazis locked up the Jews using the anti-Semitic justification that they were carriers of disease and that the rest of the population had to be protected.
It was after a previous epidemic, which began in 1939, that in October 1940 they created the Disease area or disease restricted area, an area enclosed by a “epidemic wall” 3 meters high and 18 meters long, which would later become the ghetto.
Worse still, the Germans were aware that famine would fuel the epidemic and used typhus as a genocidal weapon, say researchers at RMIT University.
When aberrant conditions in the ghetto caused typhus to spread, the Nazis used it as evidence that their accusations against Jews were true.
“In October 1941, when the epidemic was raging in the Warsaw ghetto, Jost Walbaum, the health director of the general government (of occupied Poland) made the infamous accusation: ‘Jews are overwhelmingly the carriers and spreaders of the infection. by typhus’ “, say the experts.
Later this same excuse would justify the annihilation of the Jews.
“The highest German administrative authority in the general government, Governor General Hans Frank, alleged in 1943 that the genocidal murder of 3 million Jews in Poland ‘it was unavoidable for public health reasons’“, they remember in their work.
However, the researchers focus on the incredible work that doctors did in the ghetto to combat the epidemic, which despite the fact that it stopped there it continued that winter in the rest of Warsaw.
According to his calculations, without public health interventions, infections in the Warsaw ghetto would have been “two to three times higher”, so the prevention measures managed to avoid “a catastrophe”.
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