By Dr. Anthony Policastro

We celebrate Thanksgiving every year. However, we sometimes forget that the first Thanksgiving had a deep rooted medical history.

The Pilgrims established the first permanent colony in New England. However, there had been other explorers who had stopped in that area. 

They included some famous names like Samuel de Champlain, Henry Hudson and John Smith. Cape Cod got its name from Bartholomew Gosnold who explored the area in 1602.

However, the explorers were not the only ones to visit the area. They were accompanied by smallpox, measles and influenza. During the years 1617-1619 an epidemic killed 90 percent of the Native Americans in the area.

It appears that the epidemic that did that was something called leptospirosis. The bacteria that causes it is a relative of the ones that cause syphilis and Lyme disease.

It is carried by the black rat. The rats came courtesy of the explorers’ ships. Those rats then urinated in the drinking water. The Native Americans who drank the water developed leptospirosis and died.

For perspective, laboratory hamsters injected with 10 leptospira will die within days. Each drop of rat urine deposited hundreds of thousands of them into the water.

The result was that when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they found an abandoned village. They found pre-tilled fields. That made it much easier for them to settle in.

Squanto is the Native American famous for assisting the Pilgrims. He escaped the epidemic because the Englishman Thomas Hunt had kidnapped him and had him in captivity. He returned to work with the Pilgrims. However, his assistance was short lived. He caught leptospirosis and died.

The Mayflower had 102 passengers and 30 crew members. While they were building the new colony, they frequently stayed aboard the ship.

The first year was medically hard on the Pilgrims as well. By the end of the first winter, only 47 of the original colonists survived. Half of the crew had died as well. Most died from disease. Some died from nutritional issues. 

We have come through a COVID pandemic which killed about one out of every 300 Americans. We thought it involved a lot of suffering. 

However, in those early days the suffering was far worse. The leptospirosis epidemic killed 90 percent of the Native Americans in the area. Less than half of the Pilgrims survived the first winter.

We need to be thankful this year that modern medicine has been able to keep the mortality statistics from COVID-19 to being much less than what occurred in the early 1600s in Massachusetts.

COVID update- New COVID case numbers this week continue to show little change. Nationally, the number of new cases has gone from 241,000 to 249,000. Sussex County remains in the low risk zone. Total number of new cases went from 195 last week to 188 this week.

At this point there does not appear to be a need to keep doing weekly updates with so few new cases. We now have a vaccine. We now have antiviral agents. We know about wearing masks when we are sick. We know about hand sanitizer. There is little new to report. I will resume updates if and when we have a winter surge.