Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The history of scarlet fever

Scarlet fever is a highly contagious infectious disease that probably has existed for thousands of years. Ancient texts from China and other parts of the world have described symptoms resembling those of scarlet fever. In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates documented a patient with a reddened skin and fever. Centuries later, in 1553, the Sicilian physician Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia provided a more detailed account of the disease, coining the term “rossalia” to refer to its characteristic rash. In the 17th century Thomas Sydenham called the disease “scarlatina” and noted the characteristic sore throat, fever, and rash.

The exact cause of the disease, however, continued to remain elusive. A breakthrough came in 1924 when the American bacteriologists George and Gladys Dick demonstrated that scarlet fever was linked to a specific strain of bacteria that produced a toxin responsible for the scarlet rash. This discovery paved the way for the development of effective treatments. The development of antibiotics allowed for a better understanding of the causative bacteria, Streptococcus pyogenes, and its treatment. Penicillin and other antibiotics became effective treatments for the disease.

The incidence of scarlet fever declined significantly in the mid-20th century with the widespread use of antibiotics, improved hygiene practices, and better living conditions. Scarlet fever is now relatively rare in developed countries. However, complications such as rheumatic fever and glomerulonephritis can still occur if left untreated. Also, some parts of Europe and Asia have seen resurgences of scarlet fever in the 21st century. Today, scarlet fever is a treatable disease. But it remains a part of medical history and serves as a reminder of the importance of public health measures in preventing the spread of infectious diseases.

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