Diseases and historical fiction, Part V

(This is the fifth currently-planned installment of a series on diseases and other maladies which would be well-known to the characters in a historical. While it’s impracticable to include each and every disease and health condition in a book, one should at least have basic familiarity with them.)

Rhesus disease, a frequent cause of neonatal death and miscarriage till the Rhogam shot was approved for use in 1968. This disease strikes women with an Rh negative blood type if they’re carrying an Rh positive fetus. Of course, the crunchier than thou natural childbirth zealots who deny ALL interventions no matter what think it’s cool to skip Rhogam. This is extremely dangerous when you know your blood type is incompatible with that of your baby-to-be. Babies used to die because their mothers had no way of preventing this, and many mothers buried all or most of their babies, with no idea of why they kept losing children. (Perhaps this could’ve been why Aunt Sissy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn loses ten of her children at birth?) The shots are given during pregnancy, one at 28 weeks and a booster at 34 weeks.

Rabies, a well-known disease among animals and often transmitted to humans. It’s been known since at least 2000 BCE. Rabies was always fatal, until the first vaccine came along in 1885. A more modern vaccine was introduced in 1967. Absolutely horrifying that there are now a number of “holistic vets” who advocate (sometimes in their own magazines) not vaccinating against rabies, only giving half-dose vaccines, skipping some vital animal shots, or delaying the rabies vaccine.

Typhoid fever, a diarrheal disease known since at least 430-424 BCE, when a devastating plague killed one-third of the Athenian populace. It continued to wreak havoc throughout history, particularly in the military, until a vaccine was introduced in 1896. It was first used during the Boer War. The entire U.S. Army was vaccinated in 1909, and typhoid was history as a major source of mortality and morbidity. The chlorination of drinking water in the U.S. in 1908 also was a significant factor, as were the introduction of antibiotics in 1942.

Typhus, a horrible disease including fever, chills, delirium, joint pain, muscle pain, and vomiting. It was first described during the siege of Granada, Spain, in 1489. Throughout history, it’s sprung up in prisons, due to famines, in the military, in concentration-camps, and in the steerage quarters of ships. Though a vaccine was first developed in the interwar period, a much-improved version came about during WWII.

Dysentery, a diarrheal disease known throughout history. Like typhus, it often arose in overcrowded, dirty conditions. No vaccine exists, but today it can be treated through oral rehydration therapy.

Yellow fever, a mosquito-transmitted disease most likely originating in Africa and brought to the Americas by slave ships. The first Western outbreak was probably in Yucatán, México, in 1648, and proceeding into North America. There were many epidemics throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The last major U.S. outbreak was in New Orleans in 1905. A vaccine was developed in 1937, and first used commercially in the Fifties.

Malaria, another mosquito-borne disease predating humanity and also probably arising in Africa. It often afflicted those who were around swampy areas. In the 19th century, it was primarily treated with quinine, after centuries of herbal remedies and death. It came to the Americas in the 16th century. There is no vaccine, though we do have antimalarial drugs, of varying efficacy, and the preventative deterrents of draining swamps and spraying insecticides.

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One comment on “Diseases and historical fiction, Part V

  1. My father contracted typhus when he was a prisoner in Dachau. He barely survived, and only because he was liberated and given decent food at the time, including two oranges.

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