Four Old-Timey Diseases You Can Somehow Still Get
No matter what the podcast-industrial complex wants you to think, we have a lot of reasons to be grateful to modern medicine. Like, the last time anyone had smallpox was… 1977? Really? Someone could have watched Star Wars in movie theaters and had smallpox at the same time? The thing we invented vaccines for? That smallpox?
It turns out there are a lot of diseases we think about purely in terms of how festered actors in period films should look that are still, um, plaguing us today. Such as…
We’re no anti-vaxxers, but it can seem like some of those vaccinations are more talismans than anything else. Like, didn’t we eradicate polio in 1979? It was a pretty big deal. Elvis was involved. But that’s only kind of true. Specifically, no wild cases of polio have originated in the United States since 1979. That’s a hell of a lot of caveats, and for good reason. We got it down to only six worldwide in 2021, and then it ticked back up slightly in 2022 thanks to some political weirdness in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the only two countries where polio never stopped transmitting. Those of you who remember kindergarten math will notice that “more than six” is also “more than zero.”
That was also the same year something truly disturbing happened: An American not only caught polio in America for the first time since 2013, they were paralyzed by it. Yes, keeping in mind the statistics above, that does mean it was a vaccine-related infection, but hold on, there, Braydin’s mommy. There’s a version of the polio vaccine that the U.S. no longer uses because it can shed a weakened version of the virus into the community’s water system, giving everyone in it some immunity to the virus. That seems like a good thing, but very rarely, the virus can “reactivate” decades later, and that can have disastrous effects in an unvaccinated person, such as the unfortunate 2022 patient.
Moral of the story: Vaccinate your kids, goddammit.
The story of the Spanish flu is that it came out of nowhere (definitely not Spain), tore through the global population like a toddler tears through everything that hasn’t been moved to the high shelf and then disappeared without a trace. Again, that’s only kind of true. If the Spanish flu had a marketing campaign, its slogan would be: “Back? Bitch, I Never Left!”
Really, it only seemed like Spanish flu disappeared. What actually happened was both that it mutated into a less dangerous strain, as influenzas tend to do, and the people who didn’t die horribly were left immune to it (and then had children who were genetically better equipped to fight it off). It definitely left a trace — decades later, scientists finally sequenced the virus’ DNA and found that every seasonal and pandemic flu that’s arisen since was descended from the Spanish flu. It’s the granddaddy of the modern flu, and it would like you to call it “Sir.”
Scarlet fever is such an antiquated disease that what you know of it probably comes from a combination of Little Women and BoJack Horseman, possibly the only connection between those two properties, and what you know of it begins and ends at “It destroys families.” So let’s talk about what scarlet fever actually is: a group A streptococcus infection. Yes, that’s the same thing as strep throat. Scarlet fever is just what happens when the bacteria that causes strep throat starts producing certain toxins, and no one knows why it does that.
No one knows why it’s largely stopped doing that, either. Of course, scarlet fever became much less deadly after the invention of antibiotics, but that shouldn’t have caused the number of cases to drop so steeply over the course of the 20th century. Likewise, no one knows why cases of scarlet fever started to tick up in Europe in 2022, either. What do we have to do to get this higher on the list of things for science to figure out?
Imagine rushing to the hospital after what started as some inflamed lymph nodes has become huge, disgusting sores, and after a battery of tests, a doctor has to summon the straight face required to tell you that you have the plague. As if your day weren’t already going badly enough, now you have to come to terms with having some bullshit feudal peasant disease.
That’s the reality for an average of seven people per year in the U.S. alone, mostly in the rural west. Most people survive just fine, and it’s unlikely we’ll have another epidemic in the developed world because of the effectiveness of antibiotics, but there are still epidemics every year in Africa, in areas where antibiotics are harder to come by. Even the last urban American plague epidemic was probably a lot more recent than you think — in 1925 Los Angeles. Weird that Fitzgerald never mentioned it.