A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.
Philippine Beriberi Epidemic of 1901-1902 and 1909
We’ve got a new disease today!
Beriberi. To me it sounds like someone talking to a kid in a wubba wubba voice, “Is that your bearie-wearie?”
But no. Beriberi is one of those nasties that led our government to start spraying our cereals and pastas and breads and rice with a vitamin. In this case, B1, or thiamin. When I see all those complicated words on my cereal box, I tend to be annoyed, but perhaps I should shut up, because I have never had (and likely never will have) beriberi.
One issue is that brown rice has thiamin, but white rice has had the thiamin removed. Before Europeans showed up, people in Asia generally ate brown rice. As usual, Europeans arrived and said, “We have a great idea,” and it wasn’t a great idea. Well, it wasn’t a terrible idea, but it wasn’t a great idea. Rice without the husk (white rice) lasts longer without spoiling, but it also lacks fiber and thiamin that people need.
There are two kinds of beriberi: wet, which affects the heart and needs immediate treatment, and dry, which is not great, but not an emergency. Dry beriberi affects your nervous system.
The Philippines was also, during the early 1900s, having to fight off American soldiers. Soldiers who were burning down their homes and torturing prisoners. Yes, in a particularly ironic dick move, the U.S. was going from “fighting for liberty from our colonial overlords” to being colonial overlords. It usually doesn’t take long.
People particularly at risk for beriberi are prisoners. In Manila in 1901, at Bilibad Prison, beriberi reared its ugly head. They reported 5,448 cases, and 229 of those cases were fatal.
The other outbreaks were not as bad. Lingayen Prison and the Culion leper colony lost members of their community to beriberi. At Lingayen prison, the prison surgeon ordered the prisoners be fed local rice, rather than rice from China, and suddenly the outbreak was over.
Aside: I found some reviews of what I think is the successor to Lingayen Prison, and I’d like to report it had 80 “Likes” on Facebook. (?)
Culion Leper Colony was, at a time, the biggest leper colony in the world. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a historic site. They had their own stores, post office, baseball, theater– basically their own small town.
When they switched to feeding patients at Culion brown, “unpolished” rice, beriberi was eradicated there, too.
Today, Culion is a town without leprosy, where the few remaining survivors from the old days play guitar and serve as mayor, alongside locals who have never experienced the disease.
One other fun (well, interesting) fact about Culion Leper Colony is that they created their own money for use on the island. At first, the community was less than enchanted by this idea, throwing the coins into the sea. But they got into it later, when war led to the Culion coins being more valuable than regular Phillipine currency.
The Philippines currently holds the title for most overcrowded prisons in the world. On average, their prisons are at 600% capacity. Some inmates have to sleep sitting up because all the floor space is taken, even in stairwells and bathrooms.
On a happier note, the Second Chance program works with people who have been incarcerated in the Philippines. They also have an awesome video featuring nuns tackling a mugger and turning him into a football star (?).
Today, there are some ways you may get beriberi: if you suffer from alcoholism, if you have a rare genetic condition that causes you to not be able to absorb thiamin, if you get dialysis, or if you take lots of diuretics and pee all your thiamin out. If you have bariatric surgery or have HIV, you are also at risk for beriberi. Don’t eat too many betel nuts.
Recently, in Cambodia, fish sauce has thiamin added to it, to help prevent beriberi.
But you don’t have it. You’re fine.
If you’re still worried, go have a bowl of cereal.