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100 years ago in New York City, at least 10 epidemics of typhoid fever were traced to a single cook who was later called Typhoid Mary. Recent medical reports tell us how the epidemics could have been prevented and what could have been done to help her.

Mary Mallon came to the United States from Switzerland to work as a domestic caretaker for a family in New York. Soon afterwards, the whole family developed horrible fever, diarrhea and were very sick. Her doctor diagnosed typhoid fever, but before he could find the source of the bacteria that causes this disease, Mary Mallon had disappeared. Later, an epidemic of typhoid fever was traced to a specific restaurant in New York and by the time the investigators arrived, they learned that an employee named Mary Mallon had worked there but had recently disappeared.

Several more epidemics of typhoid fever occurred in restaurants and families in New York and each time, authorities found that a person matching Mary Mallon's description had recently disappeared. Finally, authorities caught Mary Mallon and told her never to work in a restaurant or handle food prepared for others. The epidemics continued, but she would then disappear before she could be caught and reappear later in another restaurant under an assumed name. Before she was finally put in jail, she caused at least ten proven epidemics of typhoid fever, at least three deaths and who knows how many other cases of typhoid fever.

After she was caught for causing her tenth known outbreak, she was incarcerated and spent the rest for her life in jail, dying 31 years after her first epidemic. Typhoid Mary carried the typhoid fever germ in her gall bladder for the rest of her life, even though she, herself, was not sick. If it happened today, she would not have been placed in jail, she would be cured by taking antibiotics or by having her gall bladder removed.

A study in the British Journal, Lancet, showed that people who carry typhoid fever germs in their gall bladders are at increased risk for developing cancers, even though they may have no symptoms whatever. All people who have had typhoid fever and appear to have recovered, should have cultures done to see if they still carry the typhoid fever germ. If they do, they may need to take antibiotics or have their gall bladders removed. What a difference a century makes. Today, the term Typhoid Mary refers to a person who spreads diseases to other people, even though she has no symptoms herself.

The Lancet January 8, 1994, 343:83-84.

Checked 8/9/05

June 1st, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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