A doctoral thesis in Sweden shows that dysentery alone accounted for a whopping 90 percent of all deaths in that Nordic country between 1750 and 1900.
Dysentery, or "rodsot" in Swedish, remains a major problem in developing countries, though it is virtually gone from the western world. Yet Sweden was at times struck very hard by the disease, with catastrophic consequences.
"The disease had detrimental effects, but the geographical differences were significant. For example, 90 percent of all deaths in a parish could be due to dysentery in some years, while nearby parishes were left practically unaffected," says Helene Castenbrandt, from the the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, the author of the thesis.
Castenbrandt studied how the disease struck Sweden during the period 1750-1900, with a focus on changes over time as well as regional and local differences, according to a Gothenburg statement.
Jonkoping county was used as a case study. Besides demographic data, she also used parish registers, maps, newspapers, reports from medical district officers, and other information written down by doctors.
The pattern of transmission for the three most severe outbreaks in 1773, 1808 and 1857 shows that although the disease spread across almost the entire county, there were some clusters with extremely high mortality.
Many historians have described dysentery as a regularly recurring and not very serious disease. Cholera and smallpox are often described as the most devastating epidemic diseases of that era. But Castenbrandt's results differ.
"My study points to dysentery as very epidemic in nature. The disease struck communities extremely hard at times. It flared up quite irregularly and the patterns of transmission differed from one outbreak to the next."