Sometime around 1956 0r 1958 when I was three or four years old I was diagnosed with scarlet fever (i) and was placed in total isolation (ii) at the Green Lane Isolation hospital in Farnham. This must have been a traumatic event for a tiny person and I retain vivid memories of the room in which I was kept and the toys that I was allowed to have with me, especially a plastic model of an American WWII jeep with a cream coloured driver who could be removed from his seat, an unusual feature in a 1950’s toy.
The room was very plain with institutional cream coloured walls and a large window that overlooked the gardens. Mum and dad visited regularly, no doubt every day, but were only allowed to stand outside in the garden and see me through the window, we couldn’t talk but each day they showed me some small gift that would later make its way to me via the nurses. I have no recollection of any of the medical staff and I suspect I spent many hours alone but I do remember that window vividly so I must have stared at it each day waiting for mum and dad’s arrival, I think that dad was teaching at the Bourne School in those days so I expect they walked up to Green Lane after school finished. I remember crying each day when they left.
I don’t know how long I was there or whether I even felt ill, but looking back I imagine my parents must have been besides themselves with worry; until the widespread availability of antibiotics scarlet fever could sweep through a family killing all the children in a matter of weeks (2), so even in the 1950’s, it was a still frightening childhood disease.
Eventually the doctors decided I didn’t have scarlet fever after all and I was discharged, I remember sitting on my bed waiting for mum and dad to come and collect me and seeing my grandmother and brother when we got home.
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Notes on Text
(i) Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, which is classified as Group A streptococcus (GAS; also known as Group A beta-haemolytic streptococcus). The “A” refers to the presence of a surface antigen. GAS is the most common cause of a bacterial sore throat (“strep throat”). It can also cause impetigo. More serious presentations of GAS infection include bacteraemia, necrotising fasciitis (a severe infection involving death of areas of soft tissue below the skin), streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (rapidly progressive symptoms with low blood pressure and multiple organ failure) and scarlet fever. (1)
(ii) In the 19th century, scarlet fever was a feared disease, causing devastating pandemics with high mortality. Young children with scarlet fever were kept in isolation hospitals for weeks, their toys and bed linen burned for fear of spreading the infection, and glass screens kept between them and visiting parents. For reasons that are not clearly understood, but which may be related to general improvements in health and living conditions of the population or a change in the organism itself, or both, scarlet fever is no longer as virulent in the West as was once the case. As a consequence, many developed countries are removing scarlet fever from their notifiable diseases registers1 but, at present, it remains a notifiable disease in the UK. (1)
(1) Scarlet Fever (accessed at Pharmaceutical Journal 24.5.15) – http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/opinion/comment/scarlet-fever-the-disease-in-the-uk/10001690.article
(2) Smith, Tara (2011) Scarlet Fever Past and Present (accessed as Science Blogs 24.5.15) – http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/2011/07/06/scarlet-fever-in-hong-kong/