Tag Archives: 1918 flu pandemic

One family’s history

Gram Sloan in 1918. John Francis (left) died a month later in the Spanish flu epidemic.

Yesterday was my parent’s 65th wedding anniversary. I realized in talking with them over dinner that their family stories (and mine, too, of course) provide a pretty good snapshot of how children’s health has improved in the last century, at least on the infectious disease front.

Dad’s 93 now, born in 1919 during the waning days of the Woodrow Wilson administration. His mother (my Gram Sloan) experienced a lot of tragedy with her children. She gave birth to five babies, but only three survived to adulthood. My uncle John Francis died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic at the age of three, and Donald was 4 years old when he died of pneumonia in 1924. The striking thing about her experience is that it was basically the norm for families back then. In 1914, the year she married, about one in four children didn’t make it to their 5th birthdays. (I wrote an essay about John Francis for Notre Dame Magazine–link is here.)

Mom is 87 and, though she and her six siblings all survived to adulthood, her childhood was one long string of debilitating infections: whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and polio (which left her with a weakened leg), to name a few. She even received the last rites of the Catholic Church once (for diphtheria), but defied her doctor’s dire predictions and pulled through.

Together Mom and Dad had seven babies. The first, my brother James, was born a few weeks early and died at two days of age from hyaline membrane disease (now called respiratory distress syndrome). The rest of us made it through childhood relatively unscathed–oh, we had measles, mumps, and chicken pox, like every other kid, but we were spared diphtheria, polio and the rest. (Mom dragged us to the pediatrician’s office, kicking and wailing no doubt, the day the polio vaccine arrived.)

And now my kids–they’re healthy and in their twenties. Both had chicken pox, the odd ear infection, and some wheezing, but basically had pretty healthy childhoods. The same is true for all of their cousins, a few of whom now have their own healthy children. If this were a century ago, I would probably be talking about a few of them in the past tense.

My career as a pediatrician is another indicator of how things have improved. I’ll just mention what I call the “spinal tap index.” When I started in the early 80s, I did about one spinal tap a week to diagnose or rule out meningitis. Then came the vaccines for Hib, pneumococcus, and meningococcus, and with them a huge decrease in cases of meningitis. It’s been more than a year since I did my last spinal tap.

Talk to your older relatives and friends–you’ll very likely find that they have similar stories. There is much to criticize in the current state of children’s health in the U.S., but on some fronts, particularly infectious diseases, the progress has been remarkable.

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