The Columbian Exchange is often times praised for the positive things that it brought about such as the exchange of new animals, foods, and plants between the Old World and the New World. However, not all of the aspects of the Columbian Exchange were positive. It is also important to realize that the Columbian Exchange can also be credited for the transmission of diseases which had adverse effects on both the Old and New World alike. Diseases were transferred from Europeans to Native Americans as well as vice versa. According to Alfred Crosby, " the migration of man and his maladies is the chief cause of epidemics. And when migration takes place, those creatures who have beer genetic material has been least tempered by the variety of world diseases" (Crosby 37). Europeans and Native Americans suffered immensely from disease that were foreign to them.

Common Old World Diseases included:

  • Smallpox

  • Measles

  • Malaria

  • Yellow fever

  • Influenza

  • Chicken Pox

Common New World Diseases included:

  • Syphilis

  • Polio

  • Hepatitis

  • Encephalitis




With the large numbers of disease brought by the Europeans to the New World, the Indian population was immensely impacted by these illnesses.
The Indian population was devastated by the illnesses brought by the European for several reasons:

 Since the Indians were isolated from other cultures and peoples before the arrival of the Europeans, "this weakened their defenses against the major diseases of mankind" (Crosby 31). Also, since the European diseases were extremely communicable, the spread of disease was rapid. This made it very easy for the Indians to become infected by these diseases. In fact, the diseases spread so quickly that in some instances Indians became infected before they even had direct contact with Europeans. During the Columbian Exchange, "the most deadly of the early epidemics in America were those of eruptive fevers - smallpox, measles, typhus, and so on" (Crosby 42).

Perhaps the most deadliest of diseases in regard to the Indians was smallpox. One of the first epidemics to arrive in America, smallpox was considered to be the deadliest. Smallpox is "occasionally misdiagnosed as influenza, pneumonia, measles, scarlet fever, syphils,or chicken pox" (Crosby 42). Misdiagnosis was an even more common problem four hundred years ago. Smallpox killed tens of thousands of Indians in the New World.

Symptoms of the disease included high fever and vomiting. Three or four days later eruptions form on the skin. Most Europeans and their slaves had already had smallpox or at least became partially immune. Indians, on the other hand, were extremely vulnerable to the smallpox disease.

Indians, however, were not the only victims of disease. Syphilis, an Old World disease, had a severe effect on Europeans. Syphilis was a disease transmitted by sexual contact. It was common for sailors to contract the disease since they were without women for such long periods of time during the voyage to the New World. As Alfred Crosby puts it, " If we may assume that the nature of sailors in the sixteenth century was not radically different than in the twentieth, then we can imagine no group of the former century more perfectly suited for guaranteeing that venereal syphilis would have worldwide distribution" (Crosby 148).

  • Syphilis soon became an epidemic in Europe.

  • Syphilis was often referred to as "the pox."

  • The epidemic spread throughout Europe.

  • It eventually made its way to Russia and Africa as well.







During the period of the Columbian Exchange, "Europe was in the grip of an epidemic venereal disease" (Crosby 150). The most common remedies for syphilis was mercury and guaiacum. Although mercury worked in some instances, tens of thousands still perished as a result of the epidemic. The impact of syphilis was enormous because "unlike most diseases that appear with such abruptness, it did not fill up the graveyards and then go away..." (Crosby 122). Syphilis eventually settled down and became a permanent factor in human existence.

Infectious disease probably had the most impact on the world following the initiation of contact by Columbus and his men. The Old World diseases, particularly smallpox and chicken pox. wiped out a countless number of the Indian population. Syphilis spread slowly at first and then reached epidemic proportions throughout Europe, Africa, Russia, and other nations. The transmission of diseases during the Columbian Exchange had a profound effect on the world then and continues to affect our world today.

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