Wednesday, November 30, 2011

100 Years ago today: Living before antibiotics and vaccines

100 years ago today the following story ran on the front page of The Logan Republican (Logan, Cache County, Utah).

   Once again the sympathy of the community is forcibly drawn to the bereaved and suffering at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Lindblom North Main, Logan. Members of the family were recently stricken with scarlet fever and Thursday marked the second death within one week. The first to succumb was a little three year old girl, and on Thursday John Joseph, a five year old boy, passed away and was burled according to quarantine regulations yesterday afternoon. It is understood that other members of the family are suffering from the dread disease, but are not dangerously ill. Friends and neighbors have done all in their power to assist the afflicted family, but the nature of the malady has prevented the performance of many a charitable act.
One hundred years ago public health officials in the United States knew about germs and even knew how many diseases were transmitted. Unfortunately that didn't mean they could cure those diseases. Once an outbreak began there was little they could do other than educate the public as to hygienic measures that could be taken, warn them as to the symptoms to look for, cancel large public gatherings and implement quarantines. Diphtheria killed less frequently than it had in previous decades because of the development of an antitoxin but vaccines had yet to be developed. Antibiotics had yet to be discovered. Health officials kept a careful eye on the number and severity of cases as one can read in this article in The Washington Herald November 30 1911, p. 12:

HEALTH OFFICERS ASK CO-OPERATION / Several New Cases of Diphtheria Reported
With the announcement that fourteen new cases of diphtheria were reported to the office during the past week, the health department, in its weekly bulletin, which was issued yesterday afternoon, urges the of the people of the District in fighting the disease. At present there are thirty-two such cases recorded on the books of the offices.
   "The number of reported cases and the prevalence of the disease is altogether higher than it ought to be," reads the report. "Diphtheria is a preventable disease, and as such should be prevented. It is far better to prevent disease than to treat it, either at home or in hospitals. During the prevalence of diphtheria a simple sore throat should be considered suspicious and a physician called at once and a culture taken. The wise thing Is to take no chances. Treatment with antitoxin should not be delayed in positive cases, and it should given in doubtful or suspicious cases.
Officials would try to limit the spread of these diseases by preventing the likelihood of those most vulnerable vulnerable of coming in contact with others who carried the germs. Often, as reported in The Virginia Gazette, (Williamsburg, VA November 30 1911, p. 1) schools were closed to limit the spread of infectious diseases:

THE SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED / Several Cases of Contagion
   In order to prevent a probable epidemic of diphtheria, the Williamsburg school board last Friday morning decided to close the public schools until next Monday. The disease has gradually spread over the Peninsula and reached here a few weeks ago. On account of it schools in Charles City and other places had to close for a few weeks. In only one county were any deaths thus far.[sic] Antitoxin has saved many little lives....every precaution has been taken to prevent contagion, and strict quarantine is maintained where the disease exists.
We live in a post vaccination-antibiotic world. Most of us who live in what is often referred to as the "industrialized" world and were born in the last half century have never experienced the type of quick moving, virulent and deadly epidemics that used to sweep through communities every several years. Most of us have no memories of schools being canceled and swimming pools closed for fear of the dangers associated with crowds.

And we forget that much of the world still lives with the fear of measles, cholera, malaria, typhoid and other diseases most of our doctors have never seen.

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