Coronavirus in Chile History of Chile

Chile’s History of Epidemics

Ambulance during an epidemic

Chile is in the midst of the historic Covid-19 pandemic. This, however, is but one of many pandemics and epidemics that have affected the country since its early days as a Spanish Colony. Chile Today takes a look back at a few of the diseases that have hit the country in past years.

Chile has been considered the entryway to South America. This title comes from the various ports that align the coast of the country. This also means that Chile is usually one of the firsts countries to obtain diseases from afar.

It is therefore no surprise that throughout the country’s history many diseases have affected it, whether it is the Chafalongko disease during its colonial period, to typhus in its industrialized period, to influenza during the 20th century.


Chafalongko was the name used by the Mapuche tribes for various ailments that they contracted from the Spanish conquistadors. The disease has been associated with smallpox, typhoid, and the common flu, but has yet to be properly classified. Translated, its name means “heaviness of the head,” referencing the symptoms that were associated with the diseases.

The first registered outbreak of chafalongko was between 1554 and 1556, during the Mapuche rebellion led by Lautaro against the Spanish Conquistadors. The rapid spread of the disease decimated the Mapuche forces and brought the rebellion to a halt, preventing the Mapuche from successfully attacking Santiago.

The second recorded outbreak of chafalongko was between 1616 and 1623, when it stopped another Mapuche rebellion from decimating all Spanish settlements in Chile. After this loss, Chile was considered officially conquered by the Spanish, officially beginning the chapter known as the Colonial Period.

During the Colonial period, there were two more reported outbreaks of the chafalongko disease, in the 1630s, when it decimated one third of the population of Chiloé, and another in 1647, after an earthquake leveled the colony of Santiago.

No more outbreaks were reported after the earthquake, however, many people from the colonial period contracted the disease, even up through the 1820s.

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On Jul. 26 1931, many Chileans took to the streets to celebrate the resignation of authoritarian president Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. Their celebrations, however, were cut short by the Great Depression. At the end of the year, most of the saltpeter companies in the north were forced to shut down. This, in turn, caused mass migration and crowding in the big cities as the companies’ laborers and their families searched for work elsewhere and squeezed into tight and unsanitary conditions as they tried to reestablish themselves. This contributed to the spread of lice, which resulted in an explosion of Typhus from 1931 to 1935.

By 1933, every region in the country was infected. This prompted the government to take swift action. Schools were closed for 10 days, public employees only went to work once every 18 days, and every single activity that was deemed non-essential was cancelled. The Archbishop of Santiago also canceled religious gatherings for eight days, during which the temples were thoroughly disinfected.

The government also created “cleaning houses,” where every single homeless person was taken, bathed, shaved, and disinfected. The process began in Santiago, but quickly spread to the rest of the cities across the country.

In 1934, the number of infected began dropping, and the epidemic was considered over by 1935, but it didn’t fully stop until 1939, after nearly six years.

Asian Flu

The Asian flu was a mix of the avian influenza virus and the human influenza virus, and, because it was a novel version, humans did not have proper defenses, resulting in at least one million deaths worldwide. The first case was reported in China in February 1957, and the first case in Chile was officially reported on Jul. 24 that same year.

Imported by American sailors, the first reported cases were in Valparaíso, but by the time they detected it, it was already too late. Two days later, the first infected began popping up in Santiago, with others detected in Concepción, Valdivia, Osorno, and Llanquihue. By September of that year, 21,929 people had died, and Chile was one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.

The reasons for this was due to the unhygienic living conditions that many poor Chileans suffered at that time. A lack of natal care also contributed to the massive death toll, as those who died of the disease were primarily the elderly and the young. In a study conducted in November 1957, it was discovered that on average out of 11,000 students, 5,961 (54.1%) of them contracted the virus.

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