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July 2018

Toxic people: the case of Typhoid Mary

Written by Nicole Horne
Cleanliness and Hygiene

/Throughout the ages, various people have been in the spotlight when it comes to the spread of diseases and epidemics. Consequently, these individuals tend to be perceived as toxic; spreaders of deadly bacteria and viruses around the globe and shunned from society.

In a time where ebola, H1N1 (swine flu) and various other illnesses are a reality, I thought it would be valuable to look at the first documented case of an outbreak. Let’s look at the outbreak of typhoid fever, and what led to this disease being spread amongst households in New York.

Typhoid Mary: the most well known disease carrier in history

Mary Mallon (also known as “Typhoid Mary”) was the first documented “healthy” carrier of typhoid fever, which often, is a deadly communicable disease. Born in 1869, Mary Mallon was an Irish-American cook and domestic servant who worked for several households. During 1900 to 1907, almost twenty-two people, whom she worked for, fell ill with typhoid fever (Salmonella typhi) including one girl who had passed away. 

ZA - Initial - Blog Image - Toxic people the case of Typhoid Mary - 2Source: DFRPG

After working as a cook for Charles H. Warren’s family of 11 in 1906, where 6 of the family members fell ill with typhoid fever, Warren hired Sanitary Engineer, George Soper whose speciality was studying the typhoid epidemic, to investigate the source of the outbreak. After tracing it back to Mary Mallon who had transmitted the disease to previous employers as well, Soper had discovered that this contagious disease had been following her from job to job since 1900.

Could this outbreak have been prevented?

Mary Mallon had been captured and placed into quarantine. Still not believing that she was the reason for her employers’ illness, she refused to believe she was infected and sued the health department. Shortly thereafter, she had been released with a warning not to pursue employment involving the handling of food.  

Mallon had felt healthy, not understanding much about typhoid fever and in the weakest case had most likely only experienced flu-like symptoms. 

Ignoring health officials’ conditions, she then continued to work as a cook. Almost 5 years after her release, It was then discovered that a further typhoid fever outbreak was underway in a hospital in Manhattan where 25 people fell ill and two had died. She was then confined to the same cottage she had been placed in before and kept in confinement for a further 23 years until her passing.

It was said that Mallon had neglected basic hygiene practices which contributed to the spread of typhoid fever. This disease is caused by Salmonella typhi, a bacterium that is spread through contaminated foodstuffs or water. Since salmonella typhi is shed through the body through faeces, an infected person can spread this bacteria without taking proper hygiene precautions - such as the simple act of handwashing.

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Preventing outbreaks in modern society

Should Mallon have been educated on how typhoid fever was spread, how to prevent the spread of disease with regular handwashing and avoiding the handling of others’ food, this could have been circumvented at an earlier stage. 

Discovering a healthy disease carrier most certainly does not require such extreme cases as with Typhoid Mary’s case of being quarantined for 26 years, as advances in medical technology assist in treating and preventing outbreaks.

As with many other cases - even the simple act of coming down with a case of flu-like symptoms - the best action in this regard is to visit your local doctor to get it checked out. We are all familiar with the saying “rather safe than sorry!” 

Practising good hand hygiene at all times is imperative to prevent the spread of diseases. Wash hands regularly, after using the bathroom, before eating and before and after handling food.

Download our handwashing guide for helpful insights and downloadable posters you can use to help everyone around you stay healthy

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Nicole Horne

Nicole Horne

Nicole is a Digital Marketing Executive at Rentokil Initial Hygiene in Johannesburg. A self-proclaimed germaphobe, her love for hygienic environments and curiosity of all things “beneath the surface” fuels her enthusiasm for writing about the impact of germs in the workplace. She is passionate about creating awareness and sharing her knowledge on the impact of good hygiene practices. Follow Nicole on Twitter and LinkedIn for updates on the the good, the bad and the germy.

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