History & Origin of Scarlet Fever Video

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  • 0:04 Scarlet Fever
  • 1:08 Period One
  • 2:19 Period Two
  • 3:43 Period Three
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Scarlet fever played a major role in world history, so why don't we hear about it often anymore? In this lesson, we'll examine the history of this disease and see when it reached the peak of its deadliness.

Scarlet Fever

Strep throat is a common diagnosis today. Every kid expects to get strep throat at some point, and it's known to be pretty uncomfortable. A century ago, however, this could have been the sign that something much, much worse was coming. Historically, strep throat was often a precursor to scarlet fever.

Strep throat is caused by an infection of Group A Streptococcus, a type of bacterium that makes you sick. Certain strains of Streptococcus then cause further infection and inflammation, generally noticeable by skin rashes (from which scarlet fever gets its name). Scarlet fever itself is a bacterial infection similar to strep throat, but which can cause rash, high fevers, and fatalities. Scarlet fever was once among the deadliest diseases in many societies. It was greatly feared and difficult to treat. So, where did it come from, and where did it go? The history of scarlet fever can be divided into three rough time periods, so let's take a look and see how this deadly disease has impacted human history.

Period One

We don't know exactly where scarlet fever came from or when this bacteria first started infecting humans. Some paleoepidemiologists (people who study ancient diseases) think that the Greek founder of Western medicine, Hippocrates, may have described scarlet-fever-like symptoms back in the 4th century BCE. Others claim that the first person to positively identify scarlet fever was the Persian physician and philosopher Rhazes, who lived in the 9th century CE. The first absolutely definitive description of the disease dates to 1553, when Italian physician Giovanni Ingrassia identified it and named it ''rossalia''.

The name ''scarlet fever'' came later, when British physician Thomas Sydenham labeled it febris scarlatina in 1676. It was, at the time, seen as a relatively mild disease. There were good reasons to feel this way&madsh; the scarlet fever of this period appeared rarely and with years between diagnoses. There were a few epidemics in some of Europe's larger cities, but they were brief. In a world that had seen hundreds of thousands lost to plagues, the relatively lower number of deaths to a rare scarlet fever weren't that frightening.

Period Two

This all began to change around the 1820s. Western Europe and the United States were going through the Industrial Revolution. Social changes that resulted from this included huge population booms, the rise of dangerously overcrowded cities, and poor hygiene in low-income urban areas. In this world, the bacteria that caused scarlet fever thrived. In fact, the fatality rates of scarlet fever in Great Britain rose from 2% of cases in the late 18th century, to 15% in 1834. In some cities, fatality rates reached over 30% of cases, making it one of the deadliest diseases of the mid-19th century.

Children were always the worst affected, and proved to be highly susceptible. Charles Darwin lost two children to scarlet fever in the 1850s. Scarlet fever is also believed to have caused the 19-month old Helen Keller to lose her hearing and sight. John Rockefeller lost a two-year old grandson to scarlet fever, which is why Rockefeller University remains one of the world's leading biomedical research centers in the world today.

While scarlet fever had been a rare disease before, it bred in the unhygienic and overcrowded urban centers and started becoming a fact of life, constantly reoccurring in cycles of epidemics. This was a trend, but one limited to industrializing urban centers. Rural areas around the world did not see the same spike in aggressive scarlet fever, so we can pretty confidently attribute this to urban living conditions.

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