Scarlet Fever, 1800s Style

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Christmas 1878

We almost didn’t have Christmas this year. I came down with scarlet fever, and so did a lot of other kids in town. Doctor Weaver closed school with a big sign that read “QUARANTINE,” which means nobody can be with others, especially at school, in order to keep the scarlet fever from spreading. The scary part is, nobody knows how this awful disease spreads!

It’s not enough that Mother sent me to San Francisco last spring when Mitch and another ranch hand came down with scarlet fever (and it’s not usually a disease that affects adults so badly). It started (they say) up at the Yokut village, and for the first time in my life, I saw Mother looked afraid. Then when Mother confessed that Chad almost died when he had, then I got scared. And I did exactly what I was told. I let Justin take me to San Francisco to stay with Aunt Rebecca until the epidemic was over. Thankfully, I got home just in time for my tenth birthday. Whoosh! That was a close call. I almost got stuck with Aunt Rebecca planning a lavish gala for my party, inviting dozens of children that I didn’t even know. Thank you for rescuing me, Mitch!

That was last spring. I thought we were over those kinds of scares. But nope, scarlet fever came around again just when I had been given the thrilling honor of portraying Mary in the Christmas pageant. What rotten luck! I was plenty sick, but Dr. Weaver seemed relieved that this time around, the epidemic was not as severe. It all worked out, and when I had recovered, the pageant went on . . . but not for Christmas. More New Year’s Eve.

What Is Scarlet Fever?

Scarlet fever is a children’s disease, but people of any age can catch it. It’s highly contagious. The bacteria infect the throat, making it very sore and painful to swallow. There is usually a high fever, body aches, chills, and a headache.

A few days later, the fever goes down and a reddish rash breaks out. It looks like goosebumps on a sunburn. The rash starts out on the child’s neck and face then spreads to the rest of the body. About a week later it begins to fade. Patients often have a “strawberry tongue”—red, swollen, and bumpy.

Scarlet fever is the same infection that causes strep throat. However, the rash hardly ever appears in these modern times. Antibiotics like penicillin kill the bacteria before they can do much harm. Even without medicine, this disease is not as dangerous today as it was during Andi’s time. Why not? Nobody knows.

To catch “strep throat” (and in Andi’s case, scarlet fever), you need to be exposed to someone who has it, even if they don’t show symptoms. During Andi’s day, people did not understand how scarlet fever spread, so it was even scarier. After being exposed, the child usually started having symptoms 12 hours to a week later. And it hits with a bang.

This is what streptococcus bacteria look like under a high-powered microscope. The tiny, round balls bind together in long chains. It’s astonishing that something so small and innocent-looking can cause such damage!

Throughout history, scarlet fever was considered a mild childhood illness. Then it suddenly changed for the worse. No one knows why, but between approximately 1820 and 1880 there was a world-wide pandemic of scarlet fever. Several severe (deadly) epidemics occurred across Europe and North America. Doctors could tell the difference between scarlet fever and another deadly disease, diphtheria, by the presence of the characteristic rash that accompanied the sore throat. Once the child showed symptoms (like the fever and the sore throat), the infection progressed quickly. During this 19th century epidemic crisis, children could die within two days of coming down with scarlet fever!

Hearing that the disease was in the area sent fear into every mother’s heart, just like it did for Andi’s mother. Scarlet fever was a killer of children in those days. Sick grown-ups might feel miserable, but they rarely died. They never got the rash either. Some family members did not even show symptoms (sounds a bit like Covid in that respect).

Official warning of “quarantine” against scarlet fever.

No one knew how scarlet fever spread or whom it might infect. There was no medicine to cure it. A family sometimes lost half their children in a week or two. A few years later, scarlet fever would return to strike again.

The children who lived sometimes suffered from the infection’s damage. For example, many believe Helen Keller became blind and deaf from scarlet fever in 1882 when she was not even two years old.

Then around 1885, scarlet fever suddenly changed back to a milder disease, at least in modern countries. It has stayed that way right up to the present. Hardly anyone catches scarlet fever today.

Published by Andi Carter

I'm the main character in the Circle C Adventures series. I live on a huge cattle ranch in 1880s California. These are my adventures.

9 thoughts on “Scarlet Fever, 1800s Style

  1. That’s interesting how you point out how scarlet fever was like covid because the symptoms are different in different people, or sometimes non-existent. I’ve had covid 3 times. The first time I had it the only symptom I had was “covid toes.” That’s when your toes swell and get purple and blue marks on them that look like bruises, due to blood clots. The second time I got it, I had the normal symptoms of coughing, weakness, loss of taste and smell, in addition to covid toes. The third time, it was another round of just “covid toes!”

    Like

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