Did West Nile Virus Conquer Alexander the Great?

January 27, 2004

What killed Alexander the Great?

Did typhoid, malaria, poison or the flu slay the mighty conquerer? Or was it West Nile virus (WVN)? Epidemiologists Dr. John Marr and Dr. Charles Calisher read ancient reports and modern theories about Alexander's last days. Their research suggests that Alexander was killed by WNV.

Drs. Marr and Calisher provide the following facts to support their conclusion about Alexander's illness and death:

  • Alexander had a high and continuous fever, chills and weakness -- all symptoms of WNV infection. (He also reportedly had stomach pains that are not a sign of WNV.)
  • Alexander died in late spring in Babylon.
  • No mention of a rash, vomiting or seizures are mentioned in old texts. These symptoms might suggest a diagnosis other than WNV.
  • Alexander became ill on May 29, 323 BC and died on June 10, 323 BC.
  • A key piece of evidence that was overlooked in other theories about Alexander's death is a description of Alexander's entrance into the city of Babylon. The ancient Greek historian Plutarach wrote:

    "...when he arrived before the walls of the city he saw a large number of ravens flying about and pecking one another, and some of them fell dead in front of him."

WNV is spread by mosquitoes that feed on infected birds. A bite from an infected mosquito can spread WNV to a person.

Were these birds a sign of Alexander's death?

We may never know!

Reference and more information:
  1. Marr, J.S. and Calisher, C.H. Alexander the Great and West Nile virus encephalitis. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 9:1599-1603, 2003.
  2. West Nile Virus - from Neuroscience for Kids
  3. New Facts on West Nile Virus - from Neuroscience for Kids

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