NEWS & VIEWS OF PHILLIPS SINCE 1976
Wednesday December 2nd 2020

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A Good Time to Be Born

Tales from Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery 

By SUE HUNTER WEIR 

182th in a Series

John Wesley and Elinor Lockwood lost three children between 1881 and 1889. Five-year-old Lottie died from typhoid in 1881. Eight-month old Harry died from cholera infantum in 1885, and seven-month-old Lawrence died from pneumonia in 1889. Each of those diseases is treatable or preventable today. It’s a good time to be born. 

Photo: Tim McCall

Despite being bombarded daily with alarming news stories about the novel coronavirus, there is good news about health. In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Perri Klass declared this to be a good time to be born. Children born in the United States today are likely to live longer than their parents and the diseases that killed so many children in the past are very much relics of the past. It is, she wrote, “A good time to be born.” 

In the early 20th century, that was not the case. As many as 20% of American children did not live until their fifth birthdays. And those who did were still vulnerable. There are 227 children who died at the age of five buried in the cemetery. How did these children who were seemingly healthy and who had survived many of the diseases that took younger children die? 

There were a small number, about ten, accidental deaths but most deaths were caused by diseases or infections that are preventable or treatable in our day. Common causes of death were membrane croup, spinal meningitis, scarlet fever and typhoid. But perhaps the biggest threat posed to children was diphtheria. It claimed the lives of 71 of the 227 children—31% of them. Young children and adults over the age 40 were the hardest hit by the disease. 

There are many superficial similarities between typhoid and novel coronavirus. In their early stages, they look much like colds—fever, sore throat, and loss of appetite—but those early symptoms eventually lead to greater respiratory distress. Both diseases are spread through air-borne droplets broadcast by someone who is already infected. The incubation period is about two to three weeks for diphtheria and approximately five to 14 days for coronavirus. 

What’s different is that diphtheria can be prevented. A vaccine was discovered in the 1920s. The number of cases plummeted and diphtheria is no longer a cause of death in the United States although it remains a factor in other parts of the world. 

A curious feature of the English language is that we have words for adults who have lost their spouses (widow or widower) and words for children who have lost one or both of their parents (orphan, motherless or fatherless child) but we don’t have a word for parents who have lost a child. There is no single word that captures their grief and sense of loss. And many of the parents of the 

children who died at the age of five suffered more than a single loss. It was not uncommon for families to lose a second child within days, weeks, or months of the first and often from the same disease. Other families lost children over a period of years from a number of different causes. 

The Madison family lost five-year-old Martin in February 1864, and ten-week-old Albert four months later; both died from diphtheria. The following year a three-week-old baby, also named Martin died from diphtheria. In 1880 the Hendrickson family lost five-year-old Julia on December 31st, less than two months after they had lost 11-year-old Andrew. These are just two of the hundreds of families whose heartbreak was magnified by the loss of more than one child. 

Where is the good news in all of this? If those children were born today, the vast majority of them would have survived to adulthood. We know how and have the means to prevent the diseases that took so many lives. Vaccination, antibiotics, and public health education all save lives. And simple things—wearing a mask to avoid coming into contact or spreading air-borne diseases, avoiding crowds, and handwashing—are among the most effective. It is, as Dr. Klass noted, a good time for a child to be born. 

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