Historical records show how governments and society dealt with outbreaks of disease and pandemics. Reactions from science and medicine, folklore and religion present a range of approaches, based on an array of knowledge and belief.
Town councils passed by-laws to establish hospitals outside town boundaries, to enforce the segregation of afflicted persons, and to burn the clothes of plague victims.
Health officials published proclamations advising the public how to avoid infection and how to recognise symptoms of different contagious diseases. They also warned of approaching epidemics, and did much for the improvement of public health by providing clean water through the building of huge reservoirs.
National and local governments played a major role in containing epidemics. Measures could be economically damaging: trade with affected countries was prohibited and quarantines for incoming goods and people were imposed.
In the past, epidemics were commonly understood as a judgement of God on the sinful ways of the communities afflicted.
A smallpox vaccine was available from 1798. However, at first many doctors initially refused to vaccinate, because they felt they were interfering with God's plan.
Improved living conditions
Town councils reacted to outbreaks by trying to improve living conditions, but without medical knowledge concerning the cause and transfer of the disease and disagreement about its contagious nature, effective prevention was impossible.
The discovery of microbiological bodies finally made proper diagnosis and effective treatment of contagious diseases possible. Prevention in the form of hygiene, antiseptics, vaccination and inoculation further helped contain outbreaks of epidemics.