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The Question of Racial Immunity to Yellow Fever in History and Historiography

  • Mariola Espinosa
Abstract

The belief that West and Central Africans and their descendants in the New World enjoy an innate immunity or resistance to yellow fever persists in the writings of many historians. They offer three arguments that such a racial immunity actually exists: first, that a consensus on the matter prevailed among historical observers of the disease; second, that patterns of lethality during yellow fever epidemics demonstrate it to be true; and third, because a heritable resistance to malaria is known to have spread within these populations, a similar resistance to yellow fever must have developed as well. But in fact there was never a consensus among medical observers that black immunity to yellow fever actually existed, the evidence from epidemics indicates that in fact it did not, and the analogy to the very real and well-documented evolutionary consequences of endemic malaria is not apt. As there is no evidence supporting the belief of black immunity to yellow fever, it is time for historians to discard it.

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