Disease and historical fiction, Part III

(This is part of a series on diseases which were common and unable to be prevented in the pre-vaccine era. It’s important to have some familiarity with them if you’re writing historical.)

Mumps, another very common, contagious childhood disease prior to a vaccine appearing in 1968. It can cause sterility in men and older boys.

Rubella (German measles), first described in 1740, named in 1866, and formally recognised as distinct from measles and scarlet fever in 1881. There was an epidemic in Australia in 1940, and a pandemic from 1962-65, starting in Europe and coming to the U.S. in 1964. Pregnant women with rubella are more likely to have babies with birth defects. Many women sought therapeutic abortions to avoid this, and many were happy if a miscarriage occurred. They knew how freaking serious this disease is, and didn’t giggle about how awesome it is to “naturally boost the immune system” and cure everything with woo like coffee enemas, blackberries, turmeric, socks stuffed with onions, breastmilk squirted in the eyes, and watermelon juice.

Chickenpox, the disease that struck me in February 1994, at age 14, just one year before the vaccine became available in the U.S. The name was first used in 1684. Like it or not, this disease can and does kill. It’s not some minor rash your kids are “better off” catching in lieu of vaccination. “Chickenpox parties” horrify me.

Influenza, with us since antiquity and raging in a number of pandemics since 1580. The best-known pandemic is that of 1918-20, which killed millions all over the world, including many famous people. Other pandemics included 1889-90 and 1830-33.

Dukes’ disease (fourth disease), a common childhood rash. It may include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, and nausea. There is no vaccine against it.

Fifth disease, a childhood rash with nicknames such as slapped-cheek syndrome and slapped face. The Hungarians call it butterfly pox. It starts with fever, headache, and runny nose, then progresses to rash all over the body. There is no vaccine.

Roseola (sixth disease), most common in children under two and often nicknamed three-day fever or three-day rash. There is no vaccine against this, but fortunately it’s generally not serious.

Rheumatic fever, the disease which ultimately caused sweet Lou Costello’s death at the relatively early age of 52, and the disease which leads to the death of my character Cinnimin’s father. It was most common in children, but obviously could strike adults too. It got its name because of its similarity to rheumatism. Often people didn’t die of the actual fever, but of the resulting weakening of the heart. By the Sixties, it had become less common, due to antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. There is no vaccine against it.

Bubonic Plague (Black Death), first recorded in Byzantium in the sixth century of the Common Era. The most famous epidemic, of course, started in 1348 and killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. Everyone alive today who’s descended from Europeans had ancestors who survived or evaded this terrible calamity. Prior to striking Europe, the Plague struck Asia, along the Silk Road, and also struck the Middle East, India, Armenia, China, and many other areas. This was an absolutely horrific time in history. The Plague periodically recurred in Europe until the 17th century, and continued striking China and the Islamic world until the 19th century. There have also been outbreaks in the U.S. in the 20th century, most notably in San Francisco from 1900-04.

Septicemia (sepsis), a severe infection which routinely killed prior to antibiotics. Famous people and royalty as well as commoners were felled by septicemia. Diseases and infections don’t discriminate. All they care about is that you’re not immune, or don’t have any way of stopping them in their tracks. Septicemia could be caused by car accidents, a war wound, or severely breaking a bone. Basically, it’s your blood rotting and leading to organ failure. Mrs. Brezhneva, the old orphanage mother of my Russian historical novels, lost her husband to septicemia during the Russo-Japanese war (in addition to burying all five of her children to diseases which are now vaccine-preventable).


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