How beer ‘cured’ the 1854 Cholera Epidemic

Published September 28, 2021, 9:26 AM

by Wilson Chua

A true story where one pandemic is solved by non-medical methods. Data analytics, visualization and Beer Drinking combined to ‘cure’ cholera.

The date is August 31st, 1854, you are John Snow, the Queen’s Anesthetist. You puzzle over one of the deadliest diseases to affect your country. From some accounts, a neighbor would leave for work in the morning, come back late in the afternoon and be dead by the next day. Entire households were infected. Neighborhoods are in panic.

Leading medical luminaries theorized that it could be carried by ‘bad Air’ (Miasma theory) or ‘bad smells’ from rotting organic matter. This thinking dominated official medical and government statements. The recently created Health Board equivalent is a strong proponent of this theory.

As proof, their data show that people who were most affected were those living at lower elevations. The ‘bad air’ must have flowed down to the lower elevations and infected them. People living at higher elevations were not infected.

You harbor doubts about the ‘Bad Air’ theory. You have seen these same symptoms happen to miners. You were with them down in the mines. You reason that if it were ‘Bad Air’, you would have caught the disease yourself. You decide to go around and talk to the neighbors of those that were infected. You note where the victims lived.

Here is the data that you collected:

Upon seeing the data, you decide to plot them out. And voila! You see something that is suspicious. It could be the cause of the epidemic. If your hunch is correct, then a simple solution will solve this epidemic.

Some tools you can use to plot and visualize the data YOURSELF are Tableau, QGIS, Kepler.GL and Mapbox.

Here is the output using Tableau Desktop with heat density:

That small red dot in the middle is the PUMP.

Using the QGIS tool, the output looks like this:

That GAS PUMP icon is the water pump that is central to the analysis. The larger the people icon, the more cases in those areas.

Using Kepler.GL the data can be plotted like this:

The Yellow Hexagon is the Pump. The higher the purple hexagon, the more people died of cholera.

What do you see?

What is the common theme of all those mysterious cases? And seeing this, what needs to be done? Finally, how do you get the support of and/or convince the authorities to take action?

Well, you can show that there is a strong correlation between the distance to the central water PUMP and the count of cases near it. You show this to the Town council.

But your detractors (contrabida) now point out that the brewery that is NEAR the said PUMP did not have a lot of cases. And this is where beer drinking comes in.

After further investigation, you find that the workers in the beer brewery CAN and DID drink beer. This saved them from the contagion Vibrio Cholerae that caused the pandemic.

So you, John Snow approached the Local Town council and convinced them on a “Trial Basis” to simply remove the handle of the pump. This prevented people from drinking from the tainted source. Cholera cases dwindled and came to an end. People who fled returned.

Our hero, You, and data with analytics saved the day. Can we do the same for COVID-19.