The mild form of this disease has symptoms similar to flu: fever, headache, muscle ache, loss of appetite, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. But the more serious form, which occurs in about 15% of the cases, attacks the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys. Complications include secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia or blood infections. Up to 50% of the victims of the severe form of yellow fever die. Thus the overall fatality rate for yellow fever is about 7.5%.
Those who survive the infection can take several weeks to months to recover.
“At the close of the 19th century, yellow fever was a known and feared pestilence of the western hemisphere and the coastal regions of West Africa, for which no cause or effective treatment was known. Known often as ‘yellow jack’ because of the yellow quarantine flag on ships, the disease terrorized populations and severely disrupted trade” (“The Yellow Fever Vaccine: A History,” US National Library of Medicine).
In 1878, 13,000 died of yellow fever in the lower Mississippi Valley.
In 1899, the French abandoned efforts to build the Panama Canal due to yellow fever and malarial deaths.
A vaccine was developed in the late 1930s by Max Theiler, who was working for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Yellow Fever Commission. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for this. Theiler’s 17D vaccine was licensed in the U.S. in 1953. It is highly effective and provides protection for at least 10 years (“Yellow Fever,” Mayoclinic.org).
A major yellow fever vaccination campaign in West Africa began in 2006, and no outbreaks have been reported there since 2015.
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