Saturday, November 24, 2007

The history of diseases

Diseases over time mutate. People might not understand the exact mechanism but they do change. And the symptoms of a disease may or may not be the same from one period to the next.
Take Rheumatic fever. I am currently researching scarlet fever as a character has contracted it before the start of the book. I was going to use polio but it wasn't really fully understood until approximately the 1830/1840s and as this story takes place in 1814, I want to have something where the boy has a chance of living.
Scarlet fever is one of those things you read about -- think Little Women or the Velveteen Rabbit, but once I started to do my research I discovered that it is not scarlet fever that is the problem, but rather the rheumatic fever that follows. And around 1800, the nature of that disease changed -- rather than simply just attacking the joints, it began to attack the heart and the St Vitus dance or chorea appeared. Suddenly over half of the victims developed heart problems. Most recovering within six months. Then it took an even worse turn in the early 20th century. Anyway I would hazard a guess that part of the changing nature of the disease down to the over -crowded conditions. Several hospitals owe their existence to wealthy benefactors founding them AFTER their children died. It is a disease that is mainly confined to children aged 5 -15.
Today, thanks to modern medicine, the incidences of rheumatic fever have been severely cut. Antibiotics form a good line of defence as does simple measures such as covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze and washing your hands before eating.
I found it intriguing though how it changed through out history. But having discovered the answers I need, I now need to write the book, instead of led down ever increasing labyrinths of research.


Ray-Anne said...

Research is so fantastic!
My nana- born 1905 - could remember children with diptheria and scarlet fever going to the local 'fever hospital' in horse drawn ambulances and the horses wore large black plumes.
The traumatised parents must have loved that!
And of course, this was before the NHS, so they could never have afforded doctors, even if they could do anything about it.
Ear infections = deafness.
Some things we should be grateful for.
Research is SO fabulous!
LOL Ray-Anne

Nell Dixon said...

When I began my nurse training we were taught to ask all our elderly patients when they were admitted if they had suffered from Scarlet fever/rheumatic fever as children because of the potential of an undiagnosed heart condition. I collect old medical and midwifery books btw so if you ever want me to look something up then let me know.

Michelle Styles said...


That is so intersting. I hope your nana's stories are written down. I find details like fascinating.

Nell -- I have now marked you down as a Resource! Do you find a huge amount of difference in the older textbooks? Or is it that there more emphasis on certain practices?

Kate Hardy said...

You may be able to get hold of local medical students' diaries through your library. Now THEY are interesting. (I might be able to help with some things because of my pet project.)

Mumps = deafness in the 1970s as well. (And even though my mum was a senior nurse, nobody picked it up the fact I can't hear until the 1990s - and I thought nothing could be done about it until a couple of years ago.)