Monday, October 29, 2007

Illness Part 2: How are Things Different Now?


If you've been reading this blog, you know that I look at my research and family history a little bit differently than most. Every day when I read the news or experience something, I try to link it to my ancestors and if they ever went through the same experience or how certain issues were dealt with 50, 100 or 200 years ago. My family history really serves as a bridge between me and my current experiences and those of my ancestors.

I'm finally over my cold, but as I made dinner tonite I had some new thoughts: what are the illnesses that we look at today and say "big deal" whereas our ancestors would have looked at them and hoped for a miracle? And also, what new illnesses do we see today that our ancestors could never have imagined?

One example is strept throat. Most of us have probably had it at one time and we know the standard treatment is a throat culture and then a prescription for anti-biotics. But 100 or more years ago, there were no anti-biotics with penicillin having been discovered in 1928. If the patient was not able to overcome the infection through his or her own immune system, then scarlet fever or rheumatic fever would set in leading to congestive heart failure or kidney failure. These were common maladies of the 19th century and along with typhoid fever the cause of death for many of my ancestors.

Today we take anti-biotics for granted to the point where the excessive use has spawned "super bugs" such as MERSA which is making its way around the schools in suburban Chicago these past few weeks. My ancestors would probably see MERSA as they saw typhoid fever: something that swept into a small town every few years and ran rampant among the population. I don't mean to seem so blase about it, but 100 years ago it was probably just seen as a fact of life for some people.

Finally, this is the issue that I've been trying to deal with lately: why do so many people these days gave food allergies? It seems that many children in developed nations have peanut or some form of nut allergy but children in undeveloped countries in Africa are known not to have these types of allergies? Again, it may very well trace back to antibiotics and their overuse. One theory is that children in developed countries are not exposed to dirt and germs at an early age and thus don't have systems challenged to fight toxins so the body turns on itself and targets certain food proteins like nuts, milk or eggs. I'm not sure I necessarily believe that, but what I do know is I've never read any newspaper account from 100 years ago of someone dying of a food allergy!

One hundred years later we think we know so much about illnesses and how to treat them. But the very treatments that cure the plagues of our ancestors could very well be the ones causing new illnesses for us today.

Photo: obituary of Wilhelmina Heidenreich Austin, wife of Ira John Austin my 2nd great-granduncle, from the Lowville Journal-Republican, January 31, 1907. She died of pneumonia barely a week after Ira John's parents, Ira H. Austin and Hannah Dence Austin, both died several days apart. [Note: I have confirmed Wilhelmina's maiden name as Heidenreich even though the obituary uses Heinreich.]

1 comment:

Apple said...

The diseases of the past were sad but as you pointed out, as we develop cures the bugs just mutate and we have to find new cures. My personal theory about the food allergies is that few women nurse their babies these days and those that do stop too soon.