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.
Years ago when my girls were young, the school systems…at least in the Casper area, had a program whereby the kids were checked for symptoms of Streptococcus bacteria, or as we knew it…Strep Throat. Since I was not working outside the home, I volunteered to help with that program. That was where I first met the mother, Pat Neville, of my dear friend, Becky Neville Osborne. Pat taught me the ropes, and we worked together in that program for eight years. Pat has gone on to be with the Lord now, but the friendship that blossomed with her daughter, from her own childhood, has continued through the years, and continues to bless my life every day.
When Pat was teaching me the ropes of the throat culture program, I really didn’t know much about the Streptococcus bacteria, nor about how it had affected my grandmother, Anna Schumacher Spencer many years earlier. Streptococcus bacteria, is the same bacteria that causes Rheumatic fever, and years ago, that was a very dangerous disease. When Strep Throat is not treated with Penicillin to kill the bacteria, the bacteria just continues to run rampant in the system. Rheumatic fever is caused by a combination of bacterial infection and immune system overreaction, and it almost always follows a strep throat infection, which is an infection of the respiratory tract caused by bacteria of the Streptococcus family. The reason for throat cultures in the schools is that children are far more likely to get strep throat than adults…these days anyway. Years ago, it was anybody’s guess.
While my grandmother was living in Casper, Wyoming where my aunts, Laura and Ruth were living at the time, she contracted Strep Throat, and probably didn’t even know it. Then it turned to Rheumatic Fever. Unchecked, Rheumatic Fever can cause heart problems, which was common in children years ago, but is much less common now due to the routine use of antibiotics. In fact, I don’t believe routine throat cultures are performed in the schools anymore. Strep Throat still exists, but now people have to go to their doctor to be swabbed.
Rheumatic Fever is most common in children under 15 years of age, but it can affect adults too…as was the case with my grandmother. As was the case with my grandmother, Streptococcus bacteria can attack the joints. It can also attack the central nervous system, brain and spinal cord, as well as the heart. In the heart the disease affects the inner lining of the heart, including the heart valves, which is known as endocarditis, the muscle of the heart, which is known as myocarditis, or the covering of the heart, which is known as pericarditis.
Sometimes, the body reacts with a huge immune system reaction to the affected areas. The immune system becomes so active that it attacks the affected tissues too. In the joints, this results in a temporary arthritis. In the heart, permanent damage to the heart valves can occur, also increasing the risk of heart problems in later life. Rheumatic fever can also cause problems in the nervous system, but these are usually reversible.
I do know that my grandmother spent her final years confined to a wheelchair, but I always thought it was because she had Rheumatoid Arthritis. Now I wonder if it was because of Rheumatic Fever. I also know that My great grandmother and uncle here sick with something that ended up causing temporary arthritis, so possibly they had it too. I guess I may never know for sure, but I do know that sometimes I wonder if the practice of taking throat cultures should have been stopped. It seems to me that it did a lot of people a lot of good, and probably saved a lives too.