Scarlatina (the Latin name for scarlet fever) is not the romantic disease some novelists would like us to think. It caused the death of children in some fiction in classic children’s literature. But this deadly disease occurred in epidemics as a world-wide scourge. You can read about scarlatina in children’s literature here.
Caused by the A Group Streptococcus bacteria which causes severe sore throats, scarlet fever can now be treated with antibiotics.
My school-life began in June 1942, when I was five years old. I don’t remember much about my first school because before my birthday in November, I’d contracted measles, chicken pox and the dreaded scarlatina. My parents put my education on hold until the following year.
Somehow, my mother managed to protect my younger sister, Elizabeth, who had not yet turned one, from the onslaught of these illnesses. My mother was, among other things, a wizard in infection control!
Childhood illnesses circa 1942
Everyone seemed to get measles, chicken pox and mumps during my childhood. No one thought much about. They were a nuisance and meant kids had time off school, not a big deal then because most mothers stayed home, ready and able to look after sick kids.
Some children also caught whooping cough or pertussis. Everyone knew the harm that could do.
Some parents, wanting to control their lives own, actively sought out families with sick children to visit. They hoped their own children would contract the infectious diseases at a time convenient for them.
Vaccines are now available to protect children from these and other infectious diseases.
For the patient, measles meant feeling off colour with a fever and rash for a few days. We stayed in bed in a darkened room until the fever subsided. How wrong they were to think of measles as trivial! The complications of measles as we now know can be severe or even deadly.
Chicken pox involved a runny nose and itchy little lumps which my mother, like many others, painted three-times-a-day with Gentian Violet. Eventually, the lumps turned into scabby sores. The purple paint procedure went on, and perhaps became more enthusiastic as time passed. I quite liked the novelty of my appearance.
The chicken pox virus can reactivate. When that happens, it recurs in adults as the painful illness known as shingles. I documented my brush with shingles in a blog post ‘Zostavax vaccine against shingles’.
As well as the minor physical discomfort I experienced with measles and chicken pox, I also felt a little pleased to be the centre of the attention Mum lavished on me. To escape from school, where the toilets were smelly, the boys rough and the teacher loud, seemed quite a good thing.
As well as that, my Auntie Ivy, whom I adored, came to visit me every day when I was not well.
Tragedy following Scarlatina
My encounter with scarlatina was a completely different experience from measles and chicken pox. My mother, seriously concerned about my high fever and flushed appearance, rang the doctor, perhaps expecting the worst.
Her sister, my Aunt Ivy, had suffered from scarlet fever when they were children in the tiny hamlet of Greenough, in the mid-west of Western Australia, where they lived. Her kidneys were seriously damaged as a relatively rare complication of the disease.
This in turn led to the death in utero of her only child the year before my own birth. Ultimately, my aunt died of kidney failure when she was 44 years old.
Mum, heavily pregnant with my brother, took to her bed and cried for days. I still remember the smell of the 4711 cologne that she used, mixed with water, to wipe her reddened face. Dad hovered over her. My sister and I hovered at the edges of their grief.
That encounter with the death of a loved one before my 12th birthday left a deep scar. Adults’ own mourning sometimes masks the sorrow experienced by children when someone close to them dies.
I regret that I did not remember that as well as I could have when two of my babies died (a few years apart) in infancy. I can only hope my other children found comfort at that time from family and friends.
Scarlet fever and infection control
In my childhood years, general practitioners regularly saw patients in their own homes. Our family doctor said I should go to hospital.
Mum decided she would look after me at home and set up infection control measures as well as she could. The antibiotics that would later treat scarlatina had not yet been developed. Children still died of the disease.
Looking back, I can see the heroism of her decision. She would have known the dangers for all of us. She knew we would need to be isolated for as long as six weeks. As well as looking after me, she would also need to care for her baby.
But, as she explained later, no cure and no treatment existed. She could look after me every bit as well as the hospital. Children with infectious diseases did not have visitors, not even their parents. She could not bear the thought of being separated from me for such a long time and knew how dreadful it would be for me.
My father, man-powered and prevented from enlisting for war service, put up a rail above the outside of my bedroom door. Every day, my mother hung a fresh sheet wrung out in a solution of Dettol and water from the rail as a barrier against ‘germs getting out’ and infecting Dad and my sister, Elizabeth, still a baby.
A bowl of water and Dettol disinfectant sat permanently just inside the door so that Mum could soak her hands before she left the room. She wore a cotton dressing gown over her clothes when she tended to me and hung it inside out on a hook near the door, ready for next time. Disposable gloves were unheard of. She wore no mask.
Plates, cutlery and the cup I used were kept in my room. Mum washed me in bed, and I used a pot instead of the toilet. A great indignity for a five-year-old schoolgirl.
Life in isolation
My life in isolation lasted for many weeks. Mum allowed no one but herself into my room. The GP waved to me from the damp-curtained door.
I missed my baby sister and Dad. My grandmother, whom we called Mardie, sometimes came to take my sister for a walk, but I did not see her. Auntie Ivy did not come to the house.
I heard Mum talking to her sister, the neighbours and her friends on the phone. She must have been very lonely. I cried because I missed everyone.
Bread, milk and ice for the ice-chest were delivered every day to homes in our suburb. The fish-man on his bicycle and the fruit and vegetable truck came once a week. They left our order near the letter box.
Because Dad worked long hours, our neighbours set up a roster to do any other shopping that we needed. Every day, they contacted Mum by phone, and she dictated what she needed.
These calls were not only practical. A very sociable woman, my mother enjoyed the contact and drew comfort from the support of these women.
She put coins to pay them into a bowl of disinfectant by the letterbox and the women returned the change to the bowl and put the shopping inside the gate.
Mum managed by some miracle to contain the highly contagious bacteria.
My memories of scarlatina
My memories of the acute illness of scarlatina are vague. I was ill, hot, feverish and did not want to get out of bed or even to move. Mum plied me with drinks – flat lemonade, water, cordial. My throat hurt and drinking hurt.
She made nutritious egg custards and brought me bread and Vegemite with the crusts cut off. As my health improved, my diet graduated to include peeled grapes and tiny segments of sweet oranges as well as egg flips laced with vanilla essence.
To this day, when I’m ill or off-colour, bread and Vegemite is my go-to comfort food.
The general practitioner came every day and nodded his approval of the damp sheet at the doorway, the bowl of Dettol and the dressing gown – equivalent of the personal protective equipment (PPE) we hear about these in these days of Covid-19.
As my health improved, my need for entertainment grew. Gifts appeared. Toys I could play with in bed. Paper dolls, including cut-outs of Princess Elizabeth and Margaret, to be dressed and undressed in their beautiful dresses, coats and hats.
Paper, paint, pencils. Books. A wooden jigsaw puzzle with 78 pieces and a picture of a vase of flowers so beautiful it took my breath away. Another puzzle, a seascape with boats that I never finished.
From the beginning, Mum made quite clear to me that everything I played with while the contagion lingered would have to be burned when I recovered. I only partly understood. But I’ve have an affinity with the boy and the Velvet Rabbit from that time.
Dad began to take an active part in my life. In spite of his heavy work commitments, he took opportunities to sit outside the damp curtain and read to me after the evening meal.
Mum and Dad had both read to me from babyhood. But those evenings with my father seemed even more special. I’m sure that they boosted my love of reading. Dad read AA Milne poetry and the Christopher Robin stories. He read Wind in the Willows and Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.
When I recovered from scarlatina, my parents decided we all needed a holiday. They hired a cottage at Safety Bay, then a tiny fishing village south of Perth. Less than sixty kilometres from Perth, the journey seemed enormous.
Mum, baby Elizabeth and I spent the weekdays walking and playing on the beach, beach combing and fossicking in the seaweed. Dad joined us on the weekends. Those were idyllic days.
Because only a few weeks of the last term remained my parents decided that my school year had ended. The next year, they enrolled me in a Catholic school, where I stayed for the rest of my school life.