April 30, 2006


Or, in the case of the mumps, which is now tearing through the heartland for the first time in decades, nine plane rides away. That’s how many connecting flights it took for just two infected airline passengers, one flying out of Arizona, the other from Iowa, to apparently kick-start a new eight-state epidemic that has so far sickened 1,165 people. The outbreak serves as a grim reminder that vaccines aren’t perfect and that despite modern medicine’s advances, germs commonly associated with the early 20th century are still very much in the world. Right now several of the mustiest-sounding diseases—whooping cough, anyone?—are spiking again. “When fewer people start getting diagnosed, there’s a premature declaration of victory,” says Kenneth Castro, of the CDC. “Then we let our guard down, and the diseases come back and bite us.” . . .

As if they didn’t have their hands full with mumps and whooping cough, doctors are also starting to worry about other blasts from the past. National statistics haven’t been collected, but many papers in the medical literature argue that rickets—a vitamin deficiency long thought to be a relic of the 19th century—is increasing among African-American and Hispanic kids, particularly in the North. Doctors blame it on everything from an increase in breast-feeding (breast milk doesn’t contain much vitamin D) to the overuse of sunscreen (the body needs ultraviolet light to produce the vitamin). Another vintage ailment, scarlet fever, the scourge of “Little Women” and “The Velveteen Rabbit,” though easily treatable with antibiotics now, also endures. It infects hundreds of kids each year, but pediatricians will usually say those kids have “a symptom of strep throat,” not scarlet fever, if only so as not to scare the parents. Finally, though tuberculosis is at a record low, a nasty drug-resistant strain has emerged. Seems like old times.

Related item here.