Posted at 11:27 AM ET, 06/22/2011

Scarlet fever, measles, and other diseases that have come back to haunt us


Illustrations of children with measles and scarlet fever from “The Practical Guide to Health” by Frederick M. Rossiter, copyright 1908, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Mountain View, Calif. (Via perpetualplum user on Flickr/ Practical Guide to Health)
Scarlet fever was the scourge of the 19th century, infecting thousands and bringing along with it fever, a strawberry-tinted tongue, and infected wounds. After antibiotics were invented, the disease was nearly eradicated.

But now scarlet fever is back and sweeping Hong Kong, with two deaths and at least 400 cases of scarlet fever reported in the special administrative region this year. Even more worrying, this new strain of scarlet fever appears to be resistant to antibiotics.

Scarlet fever isn’t the first disease of old to reappear; measles, polio, whooping cough and mumps have all made alarming comebacks in recent years.

Before 1963, almost everyone got measles. A shocking three to four million cases and an average of 450 deaths were reported in the U.S. every year until the measles vaccine caused measles cases to drop by 99 percent.

This year, measles has returned to plague Americans and Europeans. Ths disease is back in part because people are not staying up to date on vaccinations due to unfounded fears the vaccine is linked to autism.

Polio outbreaks were first reported in the U.S. in 1843, but reached their peak in 1952, when the U.S. had 21,000 reported cases. Three years later, the polio vaccine turned things around, and since then, polio has been largely eradicated.

But in 2006, more than 100 new cases of polio surfaced in India, spread mostly through the consumption of unhygienic water, poor nutrition or lack of sanitation.

The uncontrollable, violent whooping cough has also come back to haunt us. “For most parents with young children today, whooping cough is a disease that exists in vintage movies or the Burl Ives song where it causes a chicken to ‘sneeze his head and tail right off,’” The Post’s Arthur Allen reported last year.

Allen’s story was on the comeback of whooping cough in California, as hundreds of babies fell ill and thousands more reported cases. It was the worst pertussis epidemic in the state since 1955, and likely occurred because of lack of vaccination and the infectious nature of the disease.

Mumps, an illness that causes severe swelling of the salivary glands and sometimes the testicles, also grew to epidemic proportions in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Mumps made an alarming comeback in the U.S. in 2007, despite the widespread use of a second dose of a mumps vaccine since 1990. Many doctors now say that the mumps vaccine may not be the most effective. 

By  |  11:27 AM ET, 06/22/2011

 
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