Gorgas’ Legacy Lives On

When I lecture on ships I’m frequently asked about yellow fever in Panama. Yellow fever is not a problem thanks to Dr.  Willam C. Gorgas who really made the construction of the Canal possible by eliminating yellow fever. LA PRENSA featured this article about the Gorgas Institute.

As the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory turns 80, researchers continue the doctor’s legacy by battling the “ yellow fevers”  of modern epidemiology.

The Gorgas Memorial Laboratory, in Calidonia, celebrates its 80th anniversary this month.

“The last death from yellow fever in Panama City was on May 28; in Colón, on May 15. Since then, cases have been kind of mild.” So reported Dr. William C. Gorgas to U.S. General Robert O’Rielly on June 3, 1905, about the progress of infection control efforts in the country’s principal port cities.

In those days, Gorgas, working as Chief Sanitary Officer for the U.S. Army, had but one mission in Panama: to eradicate the disease that had helped put an end to France’s dream of building the Panama Canal and was taking its toll on the American endeavor. By the time Gorgas arrived in Panama, yellow fever had claimed the lives of roughly 25,000 people involved with the project, and American administrators were fighting a war of attrition against a yet unidentified enemy.

Having worked in Cuba with Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay, Gorgas brought with him a crucial piece of information: the disease was spread by the female Stegomyia fasciata mosquito. Armed with this key detail, Gorgas launched a broad-based counterattack against the insect.

First, he ordered the drainage of streets and areas where stagnant water accumulated. Streets were paved and rainwater channeled through aqueducts. And in hospitals, he prohibited nurses from placing buckets of water under bed legs to keep bugs from crawling on to patients, a practice that had unwittingly contributed to the mosquito problem.

Then Panamanian president Manuel Amador Guerrero put him in charge of public health in the major cities and granted him the power to enter homes and check whether citizens were following the anti-mosquito regulations.

Gorgas died in 1920, but his legendary work was memorialized by President Belisario Porras, who inaugurated the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory in 1928. That facility, whose development parallels Panama’s own history, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year.

At first, the laboratory, funded and operated by the United States, continued Gorgas’ work, leading the study of tropical scourges.

“This was one of the first places that investigated the effectiveness of insecticides such as DDT in malaria control,” said Jorge Motta, current director general of the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas.

Over the years, however, the research facility changed course, and began investigating diseases that could be considered the modern equivalent of yellow fever, such as diabetes, heart disease, stress-related illness and even sexually transmitted diseases.

“In fact, the center is the currently the chief reference laboratory for AIDS in Central America,” Motta added.

In 1990, when the United States momentarily withdrew its financial support for Gorgas, the center was forced to join the Ministerio de Salud, a move that kept it alive, but just barely.

“It received very little of Minsa’s budget and suffered a lot. The rooms were converted to house institute administrative offices and only had a couple used as laboratories. It was on the verge of disappearing,” explained Motta.

The turning point, however, followed the detection of Hantavirus in 2000, which caused several deaths in Panama and led health authorities to suspend Carnavales in Las Tablas.

“That’s when many realized its importance,” said Motta.

The institute became autonomous in 2005, and since then has seen their annual budget for research projects go from $400,000 to $3.5 million, a sum that has offered researchers a greater flexibility in choosing studies.

Maritza Gruber, a researcher at the laboratory for the last 42 years, still recalls her first days at the center with a mixture of excitement and pride.

“I came here on December 6, 1966. I had the opportunity to work with gentlemen of the stature of Milton Carl Johnson or Pedro Galindo (the first director). Frankly, I can’t imagine working anywhere else,” she said.

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