Cholera Infantum & Other Diseases
Many diseases that often resulted in death in the 19th century are either obsolete or handled better today as the medical world has learned more about their cause and treatment. We all likely remember the eradication of polio myelitis in our own lifetime.
Determining the cause of a disease was likely crucial to curing it but a correct diagnosis was equally important. Many unrelated ailments produced similar symptoms but did not necessarily have the potential to kill. Appendicitis, while technically not a disease, was hard to diagnose and frequently wound up in death of the patient in the 1800s. Once the appendix ruptured, there was little a doctor could due to fight the poisons spilling into the patient’s abdomen.
A disease seldom seen today but common since ancient times is tuberculosis, or consumption. When my 2nd great grandfather living in Cleveland, Ohio developed tuberculosis he was sent to Denver to recover in the belief the air there was beneficial. He might as well have stayed home, as he died within a few months suffering alone away from his family. Once the cause was determined in 1882 it wasn’t long before effective treatment developed so that victims could be cured rather than become a statistic. In 1895 X-rays were discovered allowing early diagnosis and isolation of infected individuals of tuberculosis.
Cholera infantum is another example of a disease that usually killed its victims prior to the 20th century. In this case, the victims were bottle-fed infants usually under the age of two years. It was characterized by vomiting, severe diarrhea and fever. Most common in poor families in summer and early autumn, death frequently occurred within three to five days.
Recently on a Rootsweb list there was a discussion of cholera infantum and the difficulty in diagnosing and stopping the spread of disease prior to the twentieth century. The term was used to describe an acute intestinal disease, now likely called intestinal grippe or stomach flu.
The cause of cholera infantum, according to Wikipedia, is a bacterium in the genus Campylobacter. The infection, first described in infants in 1886, was also called summer complaint. This bacterium is still around but handled more effectively today than it was in the days when it killed many infants each summer.
While the genus was first discovered in 1963, it was not isolated until 1972. Infections [in the United States] from campylobacter are now linked to many foods, including poultry, raw milk and produce, and peaked at 14 percent in 2012 compared to 2006-2008, the highest level since 2000.
According to the 1899 Merck Manual, many treatments were tried in that day, some that might have killed the child even if they did halt the disease. Among the curatives were: Carbolic acid with bismuth or alone was said to be very effective; Irrigation of bowels; Lead acetate was very useful; Mercury, 1-6 grains of gray powder hourly, followed in urgent cases by a starch enema containing a minute quantity of laudanum; Opium; Silver nitrate after acute symptoms are past; Sodium Phosphate; Tannalbin, an antidiarrheal, very useful and harmless; Zinc oxide, with bismuth and pepsin; and Zinc sulphocarbolate.
I doubt whether we could even obtain most of those supposed remedies at a drug store today, let alone give something like opium to an infant. Thankfully, great advances in medical treatment have been made and we are more conscious today of what we ingest and the possible side effects.
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13 October 2013