Conquering Peru’s Ancient Killer
By “Awake!” correspondent in Peru
THE year was 1531. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his men were on their march to capture the treasures of Peru’s ancient Inca Empire. Dressed in their heavy iron mail and thick quilted cotton doublets, they trudged through the Ecuadorian province of Coaqui (now Manabí) in the unbearable January heat and humidity. Already suffering from hunger and exhaustion, Pizarro’s men were suddenly struck by a strange and hideous disease—verruga peruana.
Garcilaso de la Vega, an Inca historian whose father served for a time with Pizarro’s forces, reported that the disease “took the form of excrescences that broke out all over their bodies, but principally on their faces. They thought at first that these were warts, because, at the beginning, they looked like warts [hence the name verruga peruana, or Peruvian wart]. But as time passed, they grew larger and began to ripen like figs, of which they had both the size and shape: they hung and swung from a stem, secreted blood and body fluids, and nothing was more frightful to see or more painful, because they were very sensitive to touch. . . . Indeed, some died of them.”
Other writers gave a more subdued description: “It took the form of ulcers, or rather, hideous warts of great size, which covered the body, and when lanced, as was the case with some, discharged such a quantity of blood as proved fatal to the sufferer.”
Three centuries passed and the disease still remained a mystery. Then came the 1870’s and the construction of the Central Railroad. Just 40 miles (64 km) above Lima, at Cocachacra, verruga peruana struck again. This time it was so devastating that, according to the natives, there were “as many deaths as cross-ties.” All the engineers who inspected the trans-Andean railroad contracted the disease. One authority reported that 7,000 workers died during this period, and the construction nearly came to a halt due to large-scale desertion among the workers.
Wrestling With a Medical Puzzle
By the 1800’s the dreaded disease had attracted the attention of the medical profession. Daniel Alcides Carrión, a promising young medical student at the hospital “Dos De Mayo,” spent several years studying the disease, and was hard at work on his bachelor’s thesis on verruga peruana. In order to determine the precise nature of the disease, on August 27, 1885, Carrión told his colleagues that he was going to inoculate himself with fluid obtained from one of the reddish, warty growths on a patient in the hospital who was recovering from verruga peruana. His friends protested, but when they saw his determination, one of them assisted him in performing four inoculations in his arms. That began an ordeal that made Daniel Carrión a martyr in the medical annals of Peru.
Three weeks after his inoculation, Carrión was in pains when he walked. On September 18 and 19, according to his diary, he experienced sharp cold chills and high fever with accompanying insomnia. His temperature first soared to 104° F. (40° C.), then dropped to 95° F. (35° C.). Sharp cramps, depression caused by severe anemia, vomiting, abdominal pain, jerking of the arms and legs—all these punished his body and mind. Almost to the end of his life, he was able to record his own medical observations; but it was over all too soon. On October 5, just 39 days after his inoculation, Daniel Carrión was dead, only 26 years old.
Did Carrión expect to die? “Happen what may, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I want to inoculate myself.” But it appeared that he was optimistic about the outcome. The infected liquid was from a patient who had a very benign form of the disease. Carrión was working on his bachelor’s thesis and his career in medicine was ahead of him. On September 28 he had reassured his concerned colleagues: “You have been too alarmed about my illness; the symptoms that I feel can only be those of the invasion of the wart, soon to be followed by the period of eruption and all will disappear.” He also received some medical treatment.
Daniel Carrión’s suffering and death provided firsthand, documented information about the disease. Among other things it proved that Oroya fever (a misnomer, as no one ever caught the fever in La Oroya, but on the railroad that was being built to La Oroya) and the Peruvian wart were but two separate stages of the same disease. It was not until several decades later that Dr. Albert Barton discovered the cause of the disease—a microorganism transmitted by a night-biting sandfly that infests the valleys and ravines of the Andes. Thus, today verruga peruana is often referred to as Carrión’s disease or bartonellosis.
What About Now?
After so many years of research and struggle, people still suffer from Peruvian wart. In Peru alone, hundreds died from it throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s. Even in the 1980’s there are still small outbreaks and more deaths. But by government-sponsored spraying of infested areas and the use of antibiotics, the disease has now been largely controlled. Today, one literally has to go out of one’s way to the remote regions and then deliberately ignore all precautions to contract the disease.
The story of Peruvian wart, or Carrión’s disease, is but one chapter in a long and moving saga of man’s struggle against diseases and human suffering. However, the complete eradication of the many maladies that afflict mankind must lie yet in the future. That remains the province of God’s Kingdom when neither “mourning nor outcry nor pain” will be anymore.—Revelation 21:4; compare Isaiah 33:24.