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The depopulation of Pacific islands during the 16th to 19th centuries is a striking example of historical mass mortality due to infectious disease. Pacific Island populations have not been subject to such cataclysmic infectious disease mortality since. Here we explore the processes which could have given rise to this shift in infectious disease mortality patterns. We show, using mathematical models, that the population dynamics exhibited by Pacific Island populations are unlikely to be the result of Darwinian evolution. We propose that extreme mortality during first-contact epidemics is a function of epidemiological isolation, not a lack of previous selection. If, as pathogens become established in populations, extreme mortality is rapidly suppressed by herd immunity, Pacific Island population mortality patterns can be explained with no need to invoke genetic change. We discuss the mechanisms by which this could occur, including (i) a link between the proportion of the population transmitting infectious agents and case-fatality rates, and (ii) the course of infection with pathogens such as measles and smallpox being more severe in adults than in children. Overall, we consider the present-day risk of mass mortality from newly emerging infectious diseases is unlikely to be greater on Pacific islands than in other geographical areas.

Original publication




Journal article


Epidemiol Infect

Publication Date





1 - 11


History of epidemics, Pacific islands, infectious disease, mass mortality, Communicable Diseases, Female, History, 19th Century, Humans, Male, Models, Theoretical, Pacific Islands, Population Density, Survival Analysis