Segment from Contagion

The Way They Were

Dr. Robert Gaynes describes how diseases such as yellow fever looked and felt.

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BRIAN: Well, today on the show, we’re going to take a closer look at how government response to disease epidemics has evolved since 1793, when authorities essentially threw up their hands and ran. But before we launch into the history, let’s take a minute and check in with an expert on the science.

DR. ROBERT GAYNES: OK, my name is Dr. Robert Gaynes. I’m a physician.

ED: Dr. Gaynes is an attending physician at the Atlanta VA who has spent decades working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC. We called him to help us understand what some of the diseases we’re talking about today actually looked and felt like. We began with one that shows up in all three of our centuries, smallpox.

DR. ROBERT GAYNES: This particular virus had a long period of incubation, so you would be exposed to someone, and it would take almost two weeks for you to become sick.

ED: Dr. Gaynes says that first, smallpox looked like almost any other illness. You have a fever, fatigue.

DR. ROBERT GAYNES: But by day four or five into the illness, a skin rash would appear. And this was a very characteristic skin rash. They began as fluid-filled, raised lesions that we call vesicles.

ED: It was like really bad acne, but all over your body.

DR. ROBERT GAYNES: And unfortunately for people who survived smallpox, they would leave permanent scars.

ED: A lot of those scars were on the face and left people looking pretty disfigured.

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Not So Safe Space Listening Notes By Hayley Duncan, Middle School Social Studies Teacher, Lake Lure Classical Academy