Of Diseases, Discovery, and Vaccines
I am writing about the Saint Maggie novel, A Balm in Gilead and its relationship to what is happening today. I have been working on the novel for over a year – I think it may be pushing two years now. Things got bogged down, thanks to the pandemic. And that is both not surprising and pretty ironic, because the story is about an epidemic.
The book is in its final edit on my part, which I hope to complete by the end of next week and then give it to a group of beta readers.
In the light of our current situation, though, I want to lift up some of the stuff found in A Balm in Gilead. Basically, the town of Blaineton finds itself faced with typhoid fever, a disease that was endemic in army camps, both Confederate and Union, and one of the many diseases/epidemics that threatened people in the 19th century. It made people extremely ill and took the lives of many.
Among typhoid fever’s symptoms are fever, exhaustion, red lesions called “rose spots,” mental impairment, a distended abdomen, diarrhea or constipation, and sometimes perforation of the intestine, which led to death. The weakening of the patients’ constitution could leave them susceptible to bronchitis or pneumonia, which also could lead to death. There were no effective treatments for typhoid fever. The best doctors could do was try to make the patient comfortable until the patient recovered or died. That was it.
In this novel, my characters are living in 1864. The culprit behind typhoid fever, a bacteria called Salmonella typhii, was not identified until 1880. The challenge set before my story’s doctors (Lydia Blaine Frost, Frederick Lightner, and Patrick McCoy) is to try to find the cause of the epidemic. What did the ill people all have in common? Was it something they ate? Something they drank? Something in the air?
In 1847, English doctor William Budd did similar investigative work as he dealt with an minor outbreak of typhoid fever among the people living in Bristol on Richmond Terrace. There were 34 households, 13 of which had at least one case of typhoid fever. Budd realized that those 13 households had nothing in common except the use of a well as their water supply. All the other households used different sources for their water. Budd went on to hypothesize that the disease was spread by water. His work to uncover the cause of both typhoid fever and cholera resulted in improvements in Bristol’s water supplies. People were healthier because of him.
Another interesting thing to note about Dr. William Budd is that he promoted disinfection as a way to prevent disease spread and suggested that people use chloride of lime, the era’s most powerful disinfectant. It wasn’t until 1857-60 that Budd had papers on his findings printed in The Lancet.
In A Balm in Gilead, my characters struggle to uncover the cause of the epidemic and work to limit the spread of the fever in both the Norton Mill and in the town itself. But they are severely limited by their knowledge of the disease, although they are very much aware of Budd’s work. There is nothing they can do for the people who are already ill, except to make them as comfortable as possible. Despite this, they continue their dogged search for answers.
Now that I’ve said all that, let me add one more thing. We know what is causing our current pandemic. We also know how to prevent it. What we do not know is how to cure it.
Oh, I’ve heard all the blather that we cannot trust science or the CDC. That’s chatter, dangerous chatter. Unvaccinated people are getting very sick and/or dying, but vaccinated people are not – unless they have a breakthrough infection but they get nowhere as ill as the unvaccinated.
Vaccines are important. I know some people don’t believe that. Some believe they are dangerous. So, let me tell you about one vaccine in particular.
In the early 1960s, I was part of a mass vaccination movement and have a clear memory of getting my final dose of the polio vaccine. Polio is an entero virus that primarily effects that gut, but which can affect the neurological system and cause paralysis. My parents, sister, and I went to the elementary school. We stood outside in a long line with many other people to receive our dose. Eventually we came to a table with people who took our information and then went to another table containing little paper cups that had a sugar cubes in them. Each sugar cube had drops of the vaccine on it. We popped the sugar cube into our mouths and that was it. Painless. I liked that much better than a shot.
I know there are people who might say that we were a bunch of cattle and that we allowed ourselves to do what “the Establishment” wanted us to do and that the vaccine was dangerous. I say that’s a load of bs. The vaccine was nothing, but polio was a scary disease. I remember seeing the images in Look and Life magazines of kids lying in “iron lungs.” They had suffered the worst effects of polio and could not breathe without lying in a big machine that did the breathing for them. Other kids were in wheelchairs or had braces on their legs. And, of course, there were the kids who made a recovery. But no one wanted to bet on their kid being one of the unlucky ones. And so they got the vaccine.
My partner Dan is older than I am and remembers a time when mothers were terrified of public swimming pools because polio spread through water infected by fecal matter. And nearly everyone swallows some pool water, especially kids. (By the way, the reason we use chlorine in our pools dates back to 1946, when chlorine was found to inactivate the polio virus.) Dan also remembers that when fall came each year, he would see some kids returning to school on crutches and wearing braces to help them stand and walk.
On a personal level, one of my sister’s friends was probably part of the last group of kids to contract polio. This girl wore braces on her legs and used crutches to get around. That was real. I knew her, too.
But we don’t see people suffering the effects of polio these days. Know why? Because we have the vaccine.
So, please, get the COVID vaccine. There is no reason that I can think of for us to to live in 1864. Just do it. You just might save your life or save someone else's life.
Janet R. Stafford
Cooper, Craig, “Global Vaccine Mobilization Is Not New,” Genesis Today, 18 February 2021.
Linn, Alexandra, “Polio and Swimming Pools: Historical Connections,” The History of Vaccines, An Educational Resource by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 12 June 2012.
Moorhead, Robert, “William Budd and typhoid fever,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (Vol. 95), November 2002, 561-564.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder