Super spreader

When I take walks in the neighbourhood, I find many fellow citizens are also walking. Several of them neither wear masks nor follow social distancing norms, despite repeated appeals and reminders from the public authorities. The number of COVID -19 positive of cases is increasing by the day, and I do see any individual and collective responsibility towards the community not to spread the virus. I also hear the words,’ symptomatic’ and ‘asymptomatic’, and I can be a potential carrier even if I do not have symptoms. I am putting other citizens at significant risk if I do not follow the rules in this unprecedented health crisis. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

Culturally and historically, I do not want to follow the rules. The rules are for someone else and not me.

I want to share the story of Mary Mallon, which I heard recently.

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and emigrated to the United States in 1883 or 1884. She had worked in a variety of domestic positions for wealthy families before settling into her career as a cook. She was engaged in 1906 as a cook by Charles Henry Warren, a wealthy New York banker, who rented a residence to Oyster Bay on the north coast of Long Island for the summer. At this time, typhoid fever was still fatal in 10% of cases and mainly affected deprived people from large cities. Six of the eleven people present in the house of Mr.Warren were suffering from typhoid fever from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3. The sanitary engineer, committed by the Warren family, George Sober, was asked to investigate the reasons for the infection. He assumed the mantel of Dr.Anthony Fauci, though Sober was not a medical officer by profession. His attempts to obtain samples of Mary’s faeces, urine and blood were futile.

From March 1907, he used the process what we call today as ‘contact tracing’, and started stalking Mary Mallon in Manhattan. Sober investigated and discovered that Mary had served as a cook in eight families. He found that she was transmitting disease and death by her movements without her knowledge. Sober published the results of his investigation on Jun. 15 1907, in JAMA. Twenty-two people presented signs of Typhoid infection, and some died.

Sober after enlisting the support of Dr Biggs of the New York Department of Health, persuaded Dr Josephine Baker, who along with the police, went to bring Mary Mallon in for testing. Baker and the police met an uncooperative Mary, who eluded them for five hours. In the end, she gave the samples. Mary’s stool was positive for Salmonella typhi, and she was transferred to North Brother Island to Riverside Hospital for isolation. In 1909, Mary unsuccessfully sued the health department. During her two-year period of confinement, she had 120/163 stool samples test positive. No one ever attempted to explain to Mary the significance of being a “carrier”. Hexamethylenamin, laxatives, Urotropin, and brewer’s yeast had no impact on her. Mary had refused the one operation which might have cured her.

In 1910, a new health commissioner vowed to free Mary and assist her with finding suitable employment as a domestic but not as a cook. Mary was released but never intended to abide by the agreement. She started working again in the kitchens of her unsuspecting employers, threatening public health once more. She never believed that she is a ‘carrier’.

Mary was forced into quarantine on two separate occasions on North Brother Island for a total of 26 years and died alone without friends, having found consolation in her religion to which she gave her faith and loyalty.

That year, about 3,000 New Yorkers had Salmonella typhi, and probably Mary was the main reason for the outbreak. Mary was then frequently accused of being the source of contact for hundreds of the ill.

Mary was the patient number,’zero’ and also got the nickname of “Typhoid Mary.”

I am struggling to be in the house during the current lockdown for seven to fourteen days, and I am unable to imagine how Mary survived quarantine for 26 years.



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Dravida Seetharam

Dravida Seetharam

Life long learner with interests in reading and writing