Germ History: From Measles To Syphilis, How We Created The Golden Age Of Germs

John Poole

What Causes Pandemics? We Do

If you think there are more disease outbreaks than ever, that's because there are. The number of new viruses detected in a decade has quadrupled. In this series, NPR explores the history and causes behind emerging diseases.

Ten thousand years ago, at the dawn of the agricultural revolution, many of our worst infectious diseases didn't exist.

Here's what changed.

With the rise of agriculture, for the first time in history humans were living in close contact with domesticated animals — milking them, taking care of them and, of course, eating them. All that touching and sharing gave animal germs plenty of chances to get inside us.

Take measles. Researchers think that up until about 5,000 years ago, it didn't exist. But its older cousin rinderpest, a cattle disease, did. When humans began spendingso much quality time with cows, little rinderpest germs started jumping over into us. And a few of the germshad a mutation that allowed rinderpest to evolve from a cattle disease into measles, a deadly human virus.

As if that weren't bad enough, something else was happening around this time that supercharged the degreeof damage this new measles virus could do. It has to do with the magic number of 500,000. When the world's first cities hit the half-million mark, it meant that there were now enough humans living together that measles and other germs had a steady and potentially endless supply of humans to infect.

Along with measles, scientists think other nasty diseases such as mumps, diphtheria, scarlet fever and whooping cough all evolved to live permanently in humans around 3,000 B.C.

But our ancestors had no idea what the problem was — or how to fix it. See how humans finally get a clue, in Episode 3, coming Feb. 16.

If you missed Episode 1, "Early Encounters," here's your chance to catch up:

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