Mrs. Curtis (1914): Why measles is bad

Mrs. Curtis: Protect your baby!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I often turn to my grandmother’s 1914 edition of Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cook Book for some historical perspective. Here’s what Mrs. C has to say about measles:

“[Measles] is a very fatal disease among young children. It causes three times as many deaths as smallpox, and nearly as many as scarlet fever. Ninety-five percent of all deaths occur in children under five years of age; the death rate in times of epidemic ranges from 4 per cent to 6 per cent.

The danger from measles is chiefly due to complication with other diseases, such as whooping cough and bronchial pneumonia, or to the after-effects, such as consumption, paralysis, meningitis, diseases of the skin and nervous disorders. Inflammation of the ear is a not infrequent complication of measles. This often leads to deafness or worse.”

Mortality rates in third-world outbreaks still reach as high as 10% of all infected children. While complications like pneumonia are much more treatable in first-world countries than they were in 1914, encephalitis and hearing loss remain worrisome measles complications everywhere.

Treatment? Um…none. Mrs. Curtis doesn’t even address it.

Prevention? Obviously, measles vaccine didn’t exist back then, so quarantine was the way to go:

“Isolate all suspicious cases, especially during periods of epidemic. Placard the premises [for two weeks]. No person from a home quarantined for measles should attend school, church, theater or public gathering. Everything coming from the patient’s room should be disinfected.”

In particularly bad outbreaks, Mrs. Curtis recommends burning whatever comes out of the patient’s room, pretty much everything but the people. (Actually, she doesn’t specifically recommend leaving the patient and family unburnt, so I can’t be sure on that one.)

When things resolve…

“…the sick room should be thoroughly disinfected with formaldehyde or sulfur, as described elsewhere.”

Finally, the ever-practical Mrs. Curtis refers the reader to the section on “Cleaning the room of a child who has died from infection.”

Then, presumably, you got on with life–a necessary survival skill for families at a time in history where as many as 2 in 5 children still died before reaching their 5th birthday, mostly from infectious diseases.

“You had to move on,” my father says today about the long-ago deaths of his two siblings (John Francis, who died at age 3 in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and Donald, 4 years old, in 1925). “Otherwise it would just eat you up.”

Here’s a link to an article I wrote for Notre Dame Magazine about John Francis’s death.

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Filed under Infectious diseases, Mrs. Curtis, Vaccines

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