Saturday, February 9, 2013

Scarlet Fever Probably didn't Blind Mary Ingalls

Scarlet fever was once a serious childhood disease caused by group A Streptococcus. The bacteria causes a sore throat as well as a toxin that produces a red rash as seen on this bright red tongue. But before World War 11, before antibiotics were available, a strep infection could go on to cause serious heart, liver and kidney problems.

But does strep cause blindness as was the claim in Laura Ingalls Wilder's novel, By the Shores of Silver Lake, written in the first part of the twentieth century? In that book, fourteen year-old Mary, in 1879, is blinded. Scarlet fever is believed to be the culprit:

Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever. The Nelsons across the creek had had it too, so there had been no one to help Pa and Laura. The doctor had come every day; Pa did not know how he could pay the bill. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes, and Mary was blind.

According to KJ Dell'Antonia of the NY Times, in her article "Scarlet Fever Probably didn't Blind Mary Ingals," the myth of scarlet fever causing blindness has recently been put to rest by a pediatrician.

This curious pediatrician, named Dr. Beth Tarini, a fan of the Wilder's books, looked into Mary's blindness, publishing her work last week in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Her journal article is entitled, "Blindness in Walnut Grove: How Did Mary Ingalls lose her sight?"

Why is this important? Dr. Tarini found that today, in the twenty first century, parents of her patients, upon hearing that their child had strep, became immediately terrified that their child would go blind.

Dr. Tarini concluded that it was not scarlet fever, but another disease, viral encephalitis, that would cause such blindness. Patients one hundred years ago were often misdiagnosed. Blaming scarlet fever was, it seemed, from the perspective of a writer in the 1920's, an easier explanation.

As the work of Dr. Tarini demonstrates, medical "facts" readers find in books for kids are taken seriously well beyond childhood. Today, with more accurate science available us, it is easier for writers to get those facts right.

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