One especially fascinating aspect of my job is sifting through medical history, something I was more than happy to do for my story on the resurgence of reported cases of whooping cough in Illinois and across the nation. You can find that story, which ran Friday, here.
The story revolved around a bit of a mystery in the realm of public health: Why were healthcare providers reporting more cases of whooping cough? In the 1970s, the disease seemed to have all but disappeared, with just over 1,000 cases reported nationwide in the middle of that decade. In 2011, Illinois alone topped that number. California reported 10,000 cases in 2010.
Examining the recent history of the disease gave me an excuse to comb through searchable digitized archives of the paper, which stretch back to the 19th century. We use ProQuest Historical Newspapers" href="http://www.proquest.com/en-US/catalogs/databases/detail/pq-hist-news.shtml">ProQuest Historical Newspapers which is a subscription service and offers searchable archives of important newspapers (including ours) dating back to the 18th century.
Be warned, however, this can be a major time suck! It is easy to lose hours in these incredible archives.
Reading archived stories about whooping cough, it was obvious that the disease was common in the pre-vaccine era, striking many, many children. Thousands of babies and children died, causing tremendous suffering and heartache for families. Statistics bear this out – in 1934, more than 260,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in the U.S.
Besides being unable to prevent the disease, we knew little about treating whooping cough. In a time before antibiotics or vaccines, parents and physicians resorted to strange, pointless treatments.
Several stories from around the turn of the century described crowds of children gathered at factories belching pollution, which was thought to be an effective treatment for whooping cough.
"Gas As A Medicine: Chicago Factories Are A Whooping Cough Cure," was the headline for one 1898 story that appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune. "One Place Last Year 'Treated' Three Thousand Children." Another, appearing in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1893, read "Children At Gas Tanks: They Come To Inhale The Fumes For The Care Of Whooping Cough."
Another great source of historic information about whooping cough is medical journals.
I found Dr. James Cherry’s articles on the history of whooping cough and the vaccines particularly useful and interesting. Cherry is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UCLA, and an expert on whooping cough. You can find his papers here, on PubMed. Just search for “Cherry, JD:” Some scholarly papers are free. Others are not.
On PubMed, you can also find papers published by Dr. Louis Sauer, Chicago-area physician who developed one of the earliest whooping cough vaccines in the 1930s. Search for “Sauer, LW.”
From gas factories as treatment, to antibiotics. From being at the mercy of the germ, to vaccines. From a long-lasting vaccine with potentially difficult side effects to a milder vaccine, both in terms of how long it protects to its side effects. Looking back gives us a sense of where we are, how we got here and how far we have come.
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