Dreaded diseases

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I admit to being wary of catching infections and take the precaution of washing my hands whenever possible. Other useful safeguards are adding disinfectant to the bath water and gargling with mouthwash. It was impressed on me at a very early age the awful things you can catch – especially when travelling. I caught TB as a child but threw it off – a natural immunity, I was told later.

Passengers and crews of ships have always feared outbreaks of contagious diseases that could sweep through vessels like wildfire, affecting everybody’s safety and wellbeing. The words typhus, cholera, yellow fever, smallpox and plague were enough to chill the bones of the most seasoned traveller.

It was the same on shore when epidemics swept through crowded poorly-housed communities, killing old and young alike. But on land you could at least get away to somewhere healthy – not an option on a crowded ship where there was no escape.

There is still the ever-present threat of contagions being brought into Britain. Cargoes which might carry disease are handed over to Government officials. They may be placed in isolation or quarantine for further investigation.

Historically, Customs officers played a vital role in preventing the spread of contagious diseases. This is illustrated in a display in the exciting new exhibition, Seized: Revenue and Customs Uncovered at Merseyside Maritime Museum. A photo shows a ship’s crew members being inspected by Liverpool’s medical officer around 1925 (pictured).

A painting called A Revenue Cutter on the Clyde by Robert Salmon (1826) depicts the cutter approaching a newly-arrived vessel to check for diseases. The cutter flies a signal flag from the mast which asks: “Are you healthy?”

In the 19th century the arrival of migrants in the UK brought the danger of contagious diseases. A ship’s master was required by Customs officers to swear on the Bible as to the condition of his ship. If it was healthy, he would be issued with a certificate and cleared to enter port.

A photo shows a young smallpox sufferer covered with pustules, particularly on her face, hands and arms. Smallpox was a scourge which killed and disfigured countless people over the ages - in the 20th century alone up to 500 million died from it.

There have been more than 100 disease outbreaks associated with ships since 1970, according to the World Health Organisation. Today the main infections associated with ships are gastrointestinal and Legionnaires’ diseases.

Lead image: A ship's crew is inspected for disease. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.