During the coronavirus pandemic, a global economic collapse, and increasingly frequent and severe droughts, what better time for southern African countries to see upticks in another disease: pellagra. Pellagra, a disease caused by chronic deficiencies in Vitamin B3 (niacin), is prevented with nothing more than a half-decent diet. So why is it still here in 2020? Today, we go on a journey through history to figure out what caused this vitamin deficiency disease to appear, why it still exists, and what we can do about it. With special guest Dr. Christopher Conz: Lecturer in African Environmental History at Tufts University.
I had never heard of pellagra before starting research for this episode, so I was really frustrated to see that a disease so horrific whose cure is so simple still exists, and due to coronavirus, is growing. I was particularly captured by pellagra’s history, from the more commonly told story of Dr. Joseph Goldberger in the United States to the much less commonly told story of Lesotho, which Dr. Conz tells in his paper. And while we only had time for two history lessons in the podcast episode, there are certainly many more pellagra stories to tell.
Pellagra is a real demonstration of the way in which history defines the present. I listened to a lot of people tell the Dr. Goldberger story and then leave it off once they found the cure, or once they found the cure and the powers that be in the South refuted it in a ploy to maintain power over impoverished and marginalized communities. I didn’t see anyone look at the through line to today. But pellagra still exists, and after learning the history, it became quite clear why. The problems that caused pellagra weren’t really fixed.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for innovation. A lot of the pellagra-reducing steps the world has taken such as education and fortification have minimized the disease. As important as all of that is, I also found Dr. Conz’s take interesting, that fully eradicating pellagra requires solving the problems that got us here, which would also require a look at agriculture, justice, and economic structures. And now, climate resilience.
I hope you enjoy this slightly atypical history-filled episode! It was a fun change of pace, and a topic I’m really glad I could learn more about. I know the title might not be eye-catching if you’ve never heard the word Pellagra before. I would encourage you still check it out, and really get the chance to learn something new!