The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
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The deadly impact of cholera

Tuesday, 21 May 2024, 14:13 Last update: about 3 months ago

‘Resilience in Pandemics: The Cholera Morbus Malta, 1837’. Author: Anthony Zarb-Dimech. Publisher: Book Distributors Limited. Pages: 384

The Covid-19 pandemic is still fresh on the minds of many. It was this very disease that brought so much grief to the Maltese islands and the world that prompted Anthony Zarb-Dimech to reflect on a time gone by when Malta was visited by several epidemics: plague, cholera, smallpox and the Spanish flu, to mention just a few.

The vulnerability of the Maltese islands to contagious diseases is attributed to the exposure of their geographical position situated at the very crossroads of the Mediterranean. Peoples of all races and cultures visited Malta as well as a large volume of merchant and naval shipping that brought over not only merchandise and manpower along with them but in several instances also deadly contagious diseases.

Zarb-Dimech has also brought to the fore, early Malta's poor sanitation and living conditions which contributed in no small way to the spread of the cholera among the population, especially in densely-populated areas.

This book is about the deadly impact of cholera during those five months of 1837 (June to October), the duration of the cholera among the Maltese population as it infected close to 9,000 persons of all ages and of all societal classes. Nearly half of those infected died.

The author has produced a very comprehensive text that is amply illustrated not only with images but especially with statistical lists containing the names and surnames of those who died of cholera. These lists, which include various towns and villages from both Malta and Gozo, were discovered in the National Archives and are being published for the first time. The richness of the book is best seen in its attention to detail and rich referencing and the inclusion of official daily reports of the disease (deaths and recoveries) as the disease spread over the Maltese islands. The book's Appendix is also very detailed and contains, among other, the Governor's notices, minutes and other official documentation. The author also invited Maltese and Gozitan authors to contribute to the book by way of chapters. These additions make the book even more interesting and comprehensive.

The author also included an element of emotional content to the text as the reader sifts through the lists of persons of all social classes and ages who died as a result of the disease.

Although the book is about what happened during 1837, the author goes way beyond what took place in that year as he places the reader in context with the socio-economic, political and religious background of the time and later. In fact, other chapters are about the cholera epidemic of 1865, Malta's Central Hospital Storekeeper's Ledger 1876-1890, the Cholera Outbreak in 1887 - The Ħaż-Żabbar case and the Cholera outbreak in Gozo. The book should go down well with Melitensia enthusiasts, students and researchers in medicine and even the medical profession.

This thoroughly researched first of a kind modern-era book on the cholera of 1837 is a notable addition to Zarb-Dimech's collection of works on various aspects of Maltese social history.

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