Most people have heard of “flesh-eating infections” caused by group A Streptococcus, scientifically known as Streptococcus Pyogenes. These days, these are the big headline grabbing diseases, but 150 years ago, the biggest headline grabber was Scarlet Fever. Whenever people heard of this disease, their blood ran cold. During the Victorian era in the United States and Europe. Scarlet fever killed United States children in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Of the children who contracted the disease, thousands died.
It was in about 1949 that my mother, Collene Byer Spencer contracted the disease. It was still a terrifying situation for the family. My grandparents had nine children, and having one get Scarlet Fever put the rest of the children in danger too. Scarlet Fever can cause long-term complications as a result of Scarlet Fever include kidney disease, rheumatic heart disease, and arthritis. Following my mom’s bout with Scarlet Fever, she developed a heart murmur that she did not have prior to the disease. She was sick a long time, and in reality, they almost lost her. She spent a long period of time delirious from the fever, barely knowing anything that was going on around her. Even after she recovered, it would be a number of years before she had much strength. Her hearing suffered from the Scarlet Fever too. She could hear, but she had such a ringing in her ears that it made hearing the words being spoken to her very difficult. I have not heard that any of her siblings caught the disease, so I think they must have quarantined mom from the others during the disease.
The bacterial infection that causes Scarlet Fever often starts with strep throat and skin infections. Certain strep bacteria produce a toxin that can cause a red rash—the “scarlet” of scarlet fever. Scarlet fever is usually a mild illness that most commonly affects children between 5 and 15 years old…these days. The streptococcus bacteria that caused strep throat infections were genetically different than the strains around today, and they could cause children to become very sick and die. In years gone by, the schools implemented throat cultures to detect strep throat before it could develop into Scarlet Fever. A few years back, they stopped that because they thought it was wiped out. As a mom who did throat cultures, that makes me nervous. Such a simple test to protect from such an awful disease, and such a simple medicine…Penicillin to get rid of it, was a no brainer.