When half of the population died: The epidemic of hemorrhagic fevers of 1576 in Mexico

Rodofo Acuna-Soto, David W. Stahle, Matthew D. Therrell, Richard D. Griffin, Malcolm K. Cleaveland

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During the 16th century, Mexico suffered a demographic catastrophe with few parallels in world's history. In 1519, the year of the arrival of the Spaniards, the population in Mexico was estimated to be between 15 and 30 million inhabitants. Eighty-one years later, in 1600, only two million remained. Epidemics (smallpox, measles, mumps), together with war, and famine have been considered to be the main causes of this enormous population loss. However, re-evaluation of historical data suggests that approximately 60-70% of the death toll was caused by a series of epidemics of hemorrhagic fevers of unknown origin. In order to estimate the impact of the 1576 epidemic of hemorrhagic fevers on the population we analyzed the historical record and data from the 1570 and 1580 censuses of 157 districts. The results identified several remarkable aspects of this epidemic: First, overall, the population loss for these 157 districts was 51.36%. Second, there was a clear ethnic preference of the disease, the Spanish population was minimally affected whereas native population had high mortality rate. Third, the outbreak originated in the valleys of central Mexico whence it evolved as an expansive wave. Fourth, a positive correlation between altitude and mortality in central Mexico was found. Fifth, a specific climatic sequence of events was associated with the initiation and dissemination of the hemorrhagic fevers. Although the last epidemic of hemorrhagic fevers in Mexico ended in 1815, many questions remain to be answered. Perhaps the most relevant ones are whether there is a possible reemergence of the hemorrhagic fevers and how vulnerable we are to the disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-5
Number of pages5
JournalFEMS Microbiology Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 1 2004


  • Epidemics
  • Hemorrhagic fevers
  • Mexico


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