Life before vaccines and antibiotics
I know I complain a lot about our current healthcare system and the overuse of medical care.
BUT, I am also very thankful for the advances medicine has made in the last 100 years or so.
The reminder to be more appreciative comes from the hours I spent over the holidays reading old family journals, letters and postcards, most of them dated between 1900 and 1930. They were filled with references to diseases that we rarely suffer from today thanks to vaccines, antibiotics, clean water and better sanitation standards.
One hundred plus years ago, however, the threat of death or disability from these diseases would have been very great.
I learned that my great grandmother, who emigrated from Norway, suffered from smallpox as a child. Smallpox is a virus, an extremely contagious virus, that kills about 30% of its victims. Those who survive are usually badly scarred for life (pock marks). I only have a few poor-quality photos of my great grandmother, so I don’t know if she had the tell-tale scars or not.
Vaccination for smallpox was first discovered in the late 18th century by Edward Jenner, but it wasn’t widely used until the late 19th century. Smallpox was eliminated in the US by 1952 and worldwide by 1980.
Another great grandmother had two children die during a cholera epidemic in rural Minnesota. Cholera is caused by a bacteria that is spread through contaminated food and water. It’s common in areas with crowded, unsanitary living conditions.
Typhoid fever is another bacterial disease transmitted through contaminated food and water. I knew one of my great uncles had died very young; in a letter I found out he actually died at the age of 14 from typhoid fever.
We take our clean drinking water for granted now, don’t we? There are vaccines for both cholera and typhoid, but unless you’re traveling to a country where epidemics are common, you don’t need them.
One great aunt had diphtheria as a child, and apparently the doctor cut open her throat so she could breathe (it saved her life). Diphtheria, caused by a bacteria, was known as “the strangler of children” because it caused an obstruction in the throat. It was quite contagious and was a leading cause of death in children. Now we have a vaccine, the DTP or Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine.
The most tragic death, I think, was a great aunt who died at the age of 27. She suffered from tuberculosis, which was rampant in the late 19th and early 20th century. If that wasn’t bad enough, she had appendicitis, and then developed an abdominal abscess that required a second surgery. This was in 1925, just before the discovery of penicillin. She was in the hospital for 30+ days and wrote to her sisters that she didn’t know how she could ever pay the hospital bill of $125.97.
Some things haven’t changed, have they? But she never had to pay that bill, as she passed away a month later.
Antibiotics could have treated her TB and probably saved her dying from an overwhelming abdominal infection.
My husband had a ruptured appendix last summer, and I remarked at the time that he would not have survived if he lived in the era before antibiotics.
Today we take so much of our good health for granted. My family’s letters reminded me how much vaccines for smallpox, flu, tetanus, rabies, whooping cough, measles, diphtheria and polio have changed our lives for the better. And antibiotics. They not only save lives from infectious disease and wound infections, but allow surgeons to perform longer, more complicated surgeries.
So, in 2019 I will be more mindful of the wonders of modern medicine. The key, I think, is to find that balance between too little healthcare and too much, and that’s what I’ll continue to write about on my blog.
Happy New Year and Good Health!
Are you interested in learning more about the history of medicine and vaccines? These are a few of my favorite books: