Diseases and historical fiction, Part IV

(This is part of a series on formerly common diseases, infections, and other health maladies which can help to add to the overall authenticity of a historical. It would be impracticable to include every one, but it’s good to at least be familiar with them.)

Pleurisy (pleuritis), an infection which starts in the lining of the lungs and spreads to the chest cavity. It’s most commonly triggered by a viral infection. In the pre-antibiotic era, it was much more deadly, and often progressed quicker than doctors could ameliorate it. Pleurisy is what killed Rudy Valentino.

Meningitis, which I stupidly signed at least two waivers against due to falling victim to fear-mongering misinformation about side effects. At least I was a legal adult and had the right to make such a stupid decision on my own behalf. And at least I’m science-minded enough to have changed my stance after realising I was fear-mongered to. This is an extremely frightening inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and can cause a stiff neck, headache, fever, paralysis, amputation of extremities or entire limbs, deafness, blindness, rash, gangrene, all sorts of scary stuff. A vaccine was invented in the Eighties, and I’ve been on a mission to get myself immunised for quite some time now.

Haemophilus influenzae Type B (HiB), a bacterium which commonly attacked and maimed mostly babies and children prior to a vaccine being widely adopted in 1990. It can cause epiglottitis (a serious inflammation of the epiglottis), pneumonia, lower respiratory tract infections, meningitis, and bacteremia. I was born before the vaccine existed, and luckily avoided contracting this dreaded bacterium.

Rotavirus, an extremely common cause of deadly diarrhea in babies and young children. It was named in 1974. A vaccine was introduced in 1998. Improved sanitation does nothing to prevent or curtail rotavirus. It’s still a common cause of death among children in the developing world. The first version of the vaccine was withdrawn in 1999 when it was shown it led to bowel obstruction, and two new, much-improved vaccines came out in 2006. One of the inventors of the modern rotavirus vaccine is the awesome Dr. Paul Offit, one of the vaccine-denialist cult’s most popular whipping boys. These people are so obsessed with denying vaccines to children that they make death threats. How dare he protect children from unnecessary suffering and death! He should smile and go along with your conspiracy theory lunacy about vaccines causing mind control and approve dangerous quackery like chelation, bleach enemas, and onion juice!

Cholera, an infection of the small intestine which was very common until antibiotics were invented. There are also cholera vaccines, the first of which appeared in the late 19th century. Cholera is believed to have arisen in India in antiquity, as a result of drinking bad water and living in squalid, cramped housing. The first cholera pandemic was in India’s Bengal region, from 1817-24, and gradually spread to the Middle East, southern Russia, China, Japan, Southeast Asia. Further pandemics continued through the 19th century, as the disease swept into mainland Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Hepatitis A, a liver infection which causes fever, nausea, fatigue, diarrhea, jaundice, clay-coloured stool, and dark bile. A vaccine was introduced in the U.S. in 1996, and spread to the rest of the world in 1999. Many people in the developing world are still felled by this infection.

Hepatitis B, another liver infection. The first vaccine came out in 1981, but was withdrawn in 1986 and replaced by a superior one in 1991. The vaccine is typically given in three spaced installments, though since I left New York in 1996, I never got around to having my third and final shot, and was later told I shouldn’t start all over or belatedly get the final jab. You don’t know if you’ll come into contact with someone with Hepatitis B. Don’t smugly insist you know you’ll never get it because you don’t do drugs, don’t have STDs, and have a partner who’s completely faithful to you. I’m embarrassed I once believed the natural childbirth zealots who insist there’s no need for a newborn to get this shot. People like that give natural childbirth advocates a bad name and make us seem like we’re all anti-science hippies.


3 thoughts on “Diseases and historical fiction, Part IV

    • These people seem to be obsessed with enemas—coffee, seawater, bleach, glutathione, you name it. The bleach enemas are frequently used by people trying to “cure” their autistic children, since God forbid they respect neurodiversity and be happy with a child on the spectrum.


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