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Major epidemics in Tenerife: Typhoid

El Lazareto Hospital in the El Cabo neighbourhood of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Real Academia Nacional de Medicina. Members of the Benemérita (Civil Guard) and Red Cross, nurses and patient on a stretcher, 1918.

The year 1906 was a very turbulent and unfortunate one for Santa Cruz de Tenerife - then capital of the Archipelago - because the provisional status in the mayor's office and in the civil government, some incumbents and others being accidental or interim, would give rise to a social environment beset by poverty and unemployment, due to lack of investments. To all this would be added the dramatic situation in in the city in the last months of that year, due to the epidemic that some believed was typhus and others bubonic plague.

The discord began in October, when a large number of dead rats appeared in the area of ​​the docks, ravines and sewers in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and two members of a humble family who lived in a shack in the Cuesta de los Melones district - today Residencial Anaga - died, which was diagnosed by the doctors as "petechial typhus", isolating the rest of the relatives in the Lazareto (maritime quarantine station turned Isolation Hospital); however, as no official statement was provided, nor was the population informed, the fact would cause alarm to spread and the authorities to be reproached for their silence.

Once fears of an epidemic were confirmed, the situation became so chaotic that uncertainty and terror paralyzed citizen life, to which the indecision of the authorities would contribute. Many people, mostly port workers and those in small industries who remained unemployed, were in such a distressing situation that despite the fact that cheap kitchens had been set up, large street protests took place to protest isolation, hunger and lack of work.

Mayor Pedro Schwartz returned to his post, creating the health commission, in charge of carrying out cleaning and hygiene in neighbourhoods, disinfecting drinking water, repairing sewers, burning the houses where the first cases had appeared, and taking the pigs out of town, even if they were not to blame.

Because basic necessities began to be scarce and prices of sugar, soap, salted fish, etc., rose, the new mayor, Carlos Calzadilla, acknowledging his impotence to solve the problem, telegraphed the Ministry of the Interior, exposing the critical state of the situation, asking the Ministries of Development and War to promote the works that were paralyzed, before the desperation of the workers caused serious disturbances as they were suffering from hunger and misery.

When it seemed everything was under control, the authorities in Las Palmas requested Madrid to place Santa Cruz de Tenerife incommunicado to avoid contagion, attaching the statements of eighteen doctors who certified that the disease in Tenerife was not typhus but bubonic plague. The Count of Romanones, Minister of the Interior, replied that neither national nor sanitary laws authorized the isolation of cities and regions, as it would mean sentencing them to death.

La Laguna also asked Madrid to completely isolate itself from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, which would give rise to a climate of tension and insecurity, when the people of La Laguna took to the streets and destroyed a section of the tram tracks and, at kilometre 8 of the general highway, they established a checkpoint to fumigate and disinfect the goods that arrived from the capital, prohibiting the passage of anything that offered the least doubt.

The island of La Palma joined this nonsense, and a crowd armed with sticks and stones prevented passengers of the León y Castillo steamer who arrived from the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife from disembarking.

Due to the insecurity and tension existing in the islands, and given the alarm that had been unleashed, the Government sent Dr. Luis Comenge, director of Urban Hygiene of Barcelona, ​​to take charge of the sanitary measures and report on the reality of the epidemic. After making a detailed study, he communicated to Madrid that the news was unfounded as the disease in Santa Cruz de Tenerife was not the plague. In a meeting held in the civil government, when asked if he was in favour of the isolations and sanitary cordons, he answered: "who can cordon off and isolate the rats, fleas and flies, the conductors of the diseases".

We consider that this statement was for political reasons, since a study carried out by Dr. Gumersindo Robayna Galván shows that the disease was pestile in nature, since it was especially spread by the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis), the flea of ​​the gray rat that transmits the plague, which appeared in 80 percent of the people studied; therefore it was a bubonic plague, and no cases of the pneumonic variety were found.

Dr. Comenge, given the regrettable state and lack of hygiene of many tenements in the El Toscal neighborhood and caves in the Santos ravine, would ensure that Don Juan Febles Campos made the premises of the asylum available to the City Council so that its residents could stay there, and the Captain General vacated the El Bufadero battery to welcome families in need.

Also, in order to attend to those most in need, he handed over the 5,000 pesetas that the Government had granted him for carrying out this Commission, created the Breastfeeding Institute, in the former convent of San Francisco, and donated his gold watch for a raffle that he had organized to raise funds. For this reason, on February 9, 1907, the City Council granted him the title of Adoptive Son and gave his name to Calle de San Francisco, a designation that fortunately was recovered again in 1936.

When the normality and the activity of the population were restored, the mayor published an edict authorizing the carnivals, which was an unequivocal sign that the city had overcome the crisis and that the chicharreros had not lost their adventurous spirit, and on May 3 the religious function of the Fiestas de La Cruz were celebrated, although the population would take months to recover from the psychological damage it had suffered.

During this epidemic the doctors again set an example of service to the community, carrying out sacrificial, commendable and priceless work. Of these we will highlight Agustín Pisaca Fernández, who, being a municipal doctor, was confined in the Isolation Hospital - The Lazareto - during the five months that the epidemic lasted, organizing, assisting and living with 83 patients, managing to reduce mortality from 37 to 9%. Upon returning home, his two daughters ran out to hug him, becoming infected and dying days later.

During this time, home service was provided by Dr. José Naveiras Zamorano and Dr. Luis García Ramos. Dr. Diego Costa e Izquierdo, upon learning that his homeland was suffering from a contagious disease, hastened his return from Paris and made himself available to the authorities. Dr. Costa played an important role in the cholera epidemic of 1893.

Five people died in this epidemic.

* Official Chronicler of Santa Cruz of Tenerife

Grandes epidemias en Tenerife

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