Talk:WikiJournal of Medicine/The Year of the Elephant

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WikiJournal of Medicine
Wikipedia-integrated • Public peer review • Libre open access

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<meta name='citation_doi' value='10.15347/wjm/2015.003'>

Article information

Authors: John S Marr1, Elias J Hubbard2, John T Cathey3

Marr, J; Hubbard, E; Cathey, J. 

Review by Mikael Häggström  
This review was submitted on 2015-12-31, and refers to this previous version of the article

The article contains a substantial amount of historical background, also including aspects such as the size of the army and what species of bird was allegedly involved. Most of this is not medically related, and therefore not within my field of expertise, but my impression is that it seems reasonable, uncontroversial and well referenced. The references are mainly books, and as of January 11 none of the links were dead. Therefore, the rest of this peer review will focus on the evidence regarding a smallpox outbreak, or at least some kind of epidemic, in the Year of the Elephant.

There is major evidence that smallpox existed in the region at the time, and it is my impression that it is usually the main suspected culprit in cases of disease outbreaks in armies, with measles and bubonic plague being other examples of suspected diseases in such cases.

Other than that, the only source stating that there even was an invasion, as far as I understand from this article, is the Quran. There is some mentioning of "Ethiopian chronicles" as described by Bruce J. in his 1804 publication, but there is no evidence that this isn't, in turn, referencing the Quran.

The descriptions herein, mainly including limbs falling off with pus and blood coming out, are not specific at all for smallpox. Apart from that, it is also noted that pronunciation of "pebbles" (that were allegedly dropped from birds over the invading army) sounds similar to measles in present-day Arabic, but I find this to most likely be a mere coincidence, since these pebbles seem to be clearly described as being dropped from birds.

Despite very sparse evidence, the Year of the Elephant is a notable topic, with thousands of Wikipedia article views every month, and I think that a failure of an army invasion at that time and place would definitely be more likely to be caused by a disease that is transmitted between humans than of pellet-dropping birds. Therefore, I find it appropriate to state that, if there was a an invasion as described in the Quran, an epidemic such as smallpox could have been a natural explanation for its failure.

Muhammad is attributed as a prophet in the article (rather than for example "who is believed by Muslims and Bahá'ís to be a prophet of God") and this short form is used in Wikipedia as well, such as in the disambiguation page at Wikipedia:Muhammad_(disambiguation). On the other hand, I think any statement of "peace be upon him", if included at all, should be in the acknowledgements section rather than among conclusions.

I do a little bit of everything at Wikiversity Journal of Medicine, otherwise I state no conflict of interest in making this peer review. Mikael Häggström (discusscontribs) 08:14, 12 January 2015 (UTC)

I received this peer review by email from Stephen Berger, and I've gotten permission to upload it to here. It was from an address, consistent with his presentation at that website: gideon team. Mikael Häggström (discusscontribs) 16:18, 11 February 2015 (UTC)

It was received 2015-02-10, and applies to the same version of the article as the peer review above: [1]. Mikael Häggström (discusscontribs) 08:30, 16 February 2015 (UTC)

Review by Stephen Berger  
This review was submitted on 2015-02-10, and refers to this previous version of the article

Divine events associated with any religion will invariably be interpreted as "gospel", eg, occurring exactly as related in holy scripture; or "allegorical" , ie explainable on the basis of rationality / science (physical events, hallucination, regional politics, hidden motives of the author, etc). Thus, the proscription of pork among Jews and Moslems could be dismissed as fear of trichinosis or an attempt by ancient cattle ranchers to promote their business interests.

The Year of the Elephant offers extensive evidence to suggest that the "elephant war epidemic" (if not an act of divine intervention) represented a local epidemic of Variola major. As a physician, I find the authors' analysis to be extremely methodical, well researched and compelling. Smallpox had already been well-described and documented prior to the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, and in Middle- and Near-East, regions where high-volume movement of disease vectors, reservoir animals and infected humans were inevitable.

The possible role of birds in this outbreak is fascinating. In the 21st century, birds continue to directly or indirectly disseminate a wide variety of infectious diseases. The most recent episodes have included a tragic invasion of North America by West Nile virus which began in 1999, and several subsequent outbreaks of Avian Influenza among humans.[1][2][3][4] As noted by the authors, flocks of birds and their excreta may also act as fertile breeding grounds for a variety of rodents, insects, ticks, mites, etc which can spread disease into local human populations.

In later years, smallpox virus was deliberately employed as an agent of bioterrorism – first in the fifteenth century by the armies of Pizarro against Native populations of South America,[5] and later by the British against Natives during the French and Indian Wars (1754 to 1767).[6] Although human smallpox was eliminated almost four decades ago, several armies continue to vaccinate their soldiers for fear of future military use of the virus.[7]

The authors have supported their assertion that The Year of the Elephant was most likely associated with an outbreak of smallpox. An increasing number of smallpox-related viruses have been described in humans in recent years, most associated with animal contact. Cases of human infection by Buffalopox, Monkeypox, Orf, Tanapox, Cantagalo virus, Aracatuba virus, and Passatempo virus have added a long list which began with Smallpox and Vaccinia viruses.

All too often, analyses of divine events fail to account for errors which occur during the translation of religious texts into English. Marr, Hubbard and Cathey have been careful to examine the original Arabic sources in their analysis. Clinical discriptions of the disease in question are also discussed, as are geographic and political events of the time.

About the reviewer: Stephen Berger is an internist specializing in Tropical Diseases. He is Director of Geographic Medicine at the Tel Aviv Medical Center, and Associate Professor of Medicine (Emeritus) at Tel Aviv University. His publications include 190 peer review papers and seven books, and a series of 423 e-books in the field of Infectious Diseases.

Conflicts of interest: none


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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Guidelines for surveillance, prevention, and control of West Nile virus infection--United States. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2000; 49:25-8
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