Watching television, listening to the radio or reading newspapers today has made us aware of the recent measles outbreak. If you grew up prior to 2000, you may recall the fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and sore throat associated with this disease.
The rash that covered your body was also a memorable part of this experience. Measles is contagious and is transmitted through coughing and sneezing. However, the use of vaccines resulted in major improvements in the treatment and prevention of this disease and it was declared eliminated. This vaccine became available in 1963 but in the decade prior to this, nearly all children caught measles by the time they were 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In recent decades, most of us thought of measles as a disease of the past. Some considered the measles to be a disease no longer heard of or experienced. But, with families avoiding vaccinations and embracing the anti-vaccination movement, measles has returned and is spreading at a rapid pace.
The CDC says that from Jan. 1, 2019 through April 26 there has been an increase in measles cases in the U.S. During this time, the agency says 704 cases were reported, which represents the highest number of cases reported since 1994.
The alarming rate with which the disease spread has resulted in school closings. A recent TV report said there is no evidence that the outbreak of measles is subsiding, in spite of recent attention.
When I began to read and hear about this disease, my mind kept going back in time to other childhood diseases that made parents and children fearful. Join me today as I resurrect some of the childhood diseases children experienced, back in the day.
Like many of you who were around prior to the early 1960s, I too suffered with measles. The measles, also known as rubeola, has been described as a highly contagious childhood infection that can be fatal.
Some of you may recall a fever, runny nose, dry cough, sore throat, inflamed eyes and small white spots inside the mouth. According to the Healthline website, measles could lead to middle ear infection, pneumonia and inflammation of the brain.
Parents and caregivers had to stay home to care for their children prior to the availability of a vaccine. Children affected by the disease were forced to stay home and quite often required to stay in a dark room. This meant that many children missed school and many parents often missed work.
Some of you might recall those days; quarantined at home, in a dark room for several days without visitors. Why the dark room? Well, some people thought that light might increase an affected child’s chances of losing his or her vision. But this was not true.
Some of my friends and colleagues had interesting memories of their measles experiences. With no cure, treatment involved managing symptoms until the body fought off the infection. One person told me that her mother boiled tambourine leaves and some of the bark, mixed it with a tub of warm bath water and she bathed in it to reduce the itching. Another friend told me that her mother did something similar except that she used oatmeal that was ground into a fine powder and placed in a bag or panty hose instead of tambourine leaves. Thankfully, I did not experience these remedies when I had the measles, back in the day.
Perhaps you were fortunate and avoided the horrors of measles, but suffered with some of the other childhood diseases of the past. Were you afflicted with chickenpox, another highly contagious disease like measles? Parents dealt with chickenpox in ways similar to the way they tackled measles in the pre-vaccination era.
Bathing a patient in oatmeal or in baking soda were ways to make the patient comfortable in the past. You may also recall pink calamine lotion being rubbed all over your body. If you recall, there was intense itching associated with both measles and chickenpox. Do you remember wearing mittens to avoid scratching? Scratching one’s blisters could worsen the discomfort and also cause infections.
Do any of you recall having chickenpox inside of the mouth? If so, you may have been encouraged to suck on sugar-free popsicles as a satisfying way to soothe the mouth sores. These are some kid-friendly remedies that can help you or your little one feel better until your immune system fends off the virus. While measles and chickenpox are typically associated with children, adults can catch both of these diseases. Did you know that individuals 60 years old and older who have had chickenpox are at risk of catching shingles as some of the virus may have remained in their systems? If you or anyone that you know is dealing with or has recently dealt with shingles, you know that it is a real challenge.
There are other childhood diseases that many experienced, back in the day. How many of you had whooping cough as a child? If you had this disease, you may recall that its symptoms are similar to those of a serious cold. Those symptoms include a runny nose, fever and a heavy cough. Weeks of severe coughing fits are most memorable among those who have had whooping cough. The coughing was often described as a high-pitched whoop sound, which accounts for its name.
As a child, some of you may have experienced the childhood disease called mumps. If the list of childhood diseases you experienced include mumps, you likely recall the fever, muscle pain, headache, poor appetite and just feeling downright lousy. You must also recall the painful swelling of one or both parotid salivary glands.
As a remedy or means to provide comfort to the sufferer, parents sometimes made a cloth compress. This compress was draped under the chin, covered both jaws and was then tied at the top of one’s head. Some of you might recall having this experience. This is another one of those highly contagious diseases that affects adults but we think of it more in relationship to children, mainly between the ages of 5 and 9. A friend told me that her mother made a compress and placed tabasco leaves inside of it or secured those leaves in some other manner under her chin.
Then there is the childhood disease called rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease that can involve the heart, joints, skin and brain. While I never had rheumatic fever, as a child, I became frighten whenever it was mentioned. Rheumatic fever affects hundreds of thousands of children each year. You might recall a condition that caused weak or soft bones. Did you observe children in your school or neighborhood that had bowed legs, experienced bone pain and whose growth was stunted?
These children might have been suffering from what is known as rickets, a disease often associated with infants and children. Many of us saw children, back in the day, with these physical characteristics but did not know that the condition was rickets. Improvements in the diets of infants and children help to address this health issue today.
I cannot omit ringworm from discussion of common diseases children experience. It is a disease that affects various parts of one’s body, but it does not classify as a childhood disease. But ringworm of the scalp is a different story as it occurs mainly in children between the ages of two and ten. Because of the experiences of many, in my age bracket, our experiences in elementary school suggests that it should be included in his column.
Many of you recall being sent home from elementary school because the principal, teacher or nurse detected a circular rash in your scalp with clear skin in the middle. We were sent home as it was contagious and ordered to remain home until the rash disappeared. Scalp ringworm was treated by many parents with an antifungal cream. Generally, we covered our heads with a cap of some sort until this conditioned healed.
Finally, I must include polio in these childhood diseases from back in the day. The mention of polio struck fear in the hearts of most of us growing up prior to 1955. It was in this year that Dr. Jonas Edward Salk developed the polio vaccine. Polio was regarded as one of the most frightening diseases of its time; it mainly affected children under 5. Many of us know of people that had polio but recovered. However, some had permanent paralysis and others died.
As I reflect on my childhood, the first disease that I had was tonsillitis. It seems like all school-aged children suffered with an inflammation of their tonsils. In talking with some of my friends from elementary school, they jokingly pointed out that they believed that all children had their tonsils removed whether or not it was necessary.
As I think about all that many of us were confronted with as children, it was sometimes frightening. It seems that it was the “luck of the draw” that some of us survived without repercussions from these diseases.
What I have shared with you does not represent all of the childhood ailments that affected us in the past. However, we must be grateful that many of these diseases have disappeared or are under control as a result of medical advances. After writing this column and reflecting on how these diseases impacted us, I am thankful that today, they remain buried and packed away far back in the day.