Vegetarians and Zoonosis

A story by Avery Yale Kamila from 2023

Avery Yale Kamila at March for Science, Portland, 2017

In 1835, Dr. Horace A. Barrows of Phillips described “Fewer colds and febrile attacks” among Maine patients practicing “entire abstinence from flesh-meat” and “strict adherence to the simplest vegetable diet,” as vegetarianism was then known.

Colds, influenza, tuberculosis, measles, smallpox, plague and COVID-19, group under zoonotic diseases, which pass between humans and animals. One major zoonotic breeding ground: Animal farms. Birds harbor influenza, and some scientists theorize influenza viruses jumped to humans 4,000 years ago when ducks were first domesticated.

Wabanaki peoples did not engage in animal agriculture and lived free of epidemics until European fishermen and explorers arrived. Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah documented an epidemic “between 1564 and 1570” and “typhus in 1586.” In 1617, an epidemic killed an estimated 75% of Wabanaki people, with epidemics through the 1600s and 1700s.

By 1832, Maine and the nation nervously watched the advance of another zoonotic pandemic, this time cholera, which transfers from aquatic animals. The first suspected Maine case came that March in Topsham.
Dr. Reuben Mussey, a vegetarian, of the Medical School of Maine consulted on the case. Mussey prescribed pure water, rather than the fashionable remedy of liquor and meat, as a cholera treatment.

That same month in New York, Sylvester Graham delivered a now-famous lecture on cholera, urging attendees to eat only vegetarian food and drink only pure water. After cholera swept through the city, Graham published his lecture along with dozens of testimonies from people who’d followed his advice and avoided disease. Maine native Dr. Charles E. Page wrote A Natural Cure for Consumption in 1883 prescribing vegetarianism to help treat tuberculosis.

By 2022, data from the COVID-19 pandemic published by the National Institute of Health revealed those eating plant-based diets had lower rates of infection and severe illness, recognizing a relationship between vegetarianism and staving off illness.

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