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Infectious diseases have been the most feared diseases of humans because of their ability to affect large numbers of healthy people over a short period of time. Historically, plague (which killed 10% of the population of London in 1665; Table 13-1), smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever (which have killed large numbers of people in the Third World without historical record) have been the great scourges. Other diseases like measles (which killed entire tribes of Pacific Islanders when they were first colonized by Europeans because of their lack of prior exposure), tuberculosis, and malaria have also wreaked havoc. Until this century, childbirth was a great danger to the mother because of puerperal sepsis, and surgery was greatly restricted by the high incidence of postoperative sepsis. Basic discoveries in the past few centuries by Edward Jenner (immunization), Louis Pasteur (sterilization), and Alexander Fleming (antibiotics), as well as our increased understanding of the epidemiology of infectious diseases have led to our ability to control many of these diseases.

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Table 13–1. Causes of Death, 1665, London, England. 1  

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