Another whole class of illnesses deserves attention for being brought under control by scientific advances, namely the diseases for which vaccinations are in widespread use. In the United States, for example, it is common to immunize children against many diseases that ravaged the ranks of our ancestors. Vaccines prevent hepatitis B, diphtheria, measles, mumps, German measles, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, tetanus, rotavirus, haemophilus influenza type b (HIB b), chicken pox, and a common pneumonia bacteria. All these diseases terrorized our ancestors, who, admittedly, didn't know their causes but certainly knew their effects. While there are innumerable stories about all these illnesses throughout history, let's consider just two examples.
7 Toothaches are perhaps a bad example, since they are quickly becoming a thing of the past. I had dozens of cavities as a child, along with the resulting toothaches. My children have had few, if any. If the pain associated with a toothache is alien to you, imagine prolonged suffering with the worst throbbing pain you have felt.
Tetanus or lockjaw is a disease for which most of us are vaccinated in childhood, with booster shots given every decade. As a result, our major concern about most minor cuts, splinters, insect bites, and burns is usually cosmetic. However, all such wounds are sources of Clostridium tetani, which causes tetanus. This bacterium is a common component of everyday soil and is also found in animal intestines (including our own). It does not get from there into our bodies, however; it enters through our skin. The results of untreated infection are often fatal, since the tetanus toxins cause muscle spasm or contraction (hence the name "lockjaw"). The entire muscular system is affected, and breathing eventually becomes difficult and often impossible.
Prior to the early 1890s, there was no preventative medicine against tetanus. Therefore, the disease was a hazard to anyone who got cuts, splinters, bug bites, or burns. This, of course, was everyone. Have you noticed that paintings and photographs of beach scenes from the nineteenth century and earlier show people fully clothed? That style was a result of Victorian sensibilities, but it had the added benefit of protecting wearers from insect bites, which back then were often lethal. Tetanus was also a major cause of death for soldiers injured in combat.
Polio — Summer Nightmare
Today, summertime in the developed world is often a season of relaxation, rejuvenation, play, travel, and lots of outdoors activities. Prior to the development of the Salk polio vaccine in 1955, though, summer was polio season. It was a time of terror, when parents knew they stood a good chance of losing children to this disease. Polio kills nerve cells, which causes muscles to atrophy. When nerves controlling breathing are affected, victims stop breathing and die. Those who survive the initial onslaught of the disease are permanently crippled by it. Franklin D. Roosevelt, to name possibly the most famous example, was struck with the disease in 1921, leaving him unable to walk unassisted. Many survivors had to stay in iron lungs in order to breathe. I was born shortly before a vaccine became available, and I still vividly remember pictures of people in those enormous contraptions.
Frequent polio epidemics occurred throughout the world, causing people to leave infected areas in droves, until the Salk and Sabin vaccines became widely available. These vaccinations changed how people viewed social activities, especially during the summer. So when you go to the beach wearing a sexy bathing suit, remember that there is a very good chance that science is helping to keep you alive and well.
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