In Saint Francis de Sales Cemetery in French Woods, NY, there is an obelisk-style gravestone that marks the burial plot of three small children. The stone, a narrow, four-sided pillar, stands to the …
In Saint Francis de Sales Cemetery in French Woods, NY, there is an obelisk-style gravestone that marks the burial plot of three small children. The stone, a narrow, four-sided pillar, stands to the side of the taller monuments in the mossy lawn of the old, Catholic graveyard that remains as a reminder of the church that once stood there.
The stone is weathered and covered with lichen. Wildflowers grow around it according to the march of seasons—there are bluets and violets in spring, white mustard in summer, and in fall there are the wayward spears of goldenrod that have escaped the rounds of the lawnmower.
The stone is a remembrance of three ancestors of mine. They were my grandfather’s siblings. All three died in the month of June in 1869 of the childhood scourge of scarlet fever.
Lost within the month were Lucy Elizabeth Dirig at three years, eight months, on June 11; Claudine Josephine Dirig at eight years, nine months on June 26; and Lawrence Antone Dirig at one year, three months on June 27.
Scarlet fever, a contagious bacterial illness that develops after a case of strep throat, is characterized by a bright red rash, high fever, and sore throat. The disease sometimes leads to pneumonia, rheumatic heart disease, and kidney ailments. Some die from these conditions. Others die from gangrenous ulcers that develop in the throat or throat swelling which leads to strangulation.
The disease is now nearly forgotten, due to the advancements seen by the development of antibiotics. But in America, up until the mid-20th century, scarlet fever reached epidemic magnitude. Historically, according to the website Medscape (www.medscape.com), scarlet fever resulted in the deaths of 15 to 20 percent of those affected during that time. Scarlet fever, as well as other childhood diseases such as diphtheria and measles, was a leading cause of death in young children. The website Statista (www.statista.com) reports that, overall, more than 46 percent of children born in 1800 did not survive until their fifth birthday.
Today, with the use of antibiotic therapy, the mortality rate for scarlet fever has plummeted to less than one percent, according to Medscape. However, there are reports that the disease is on the rise worldwide due to the emergence of new strains that researchers are investigating for possible origins.
The advent of antibiotic treatment revolutionized health care as did the development of vaccines for common childhood diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, and polio.
Thanks to the triumph of vaccination, the World Health Assembly confirmed that the deadly smallpox virus was eradicated in 1980. The telltale scar of the smallpox vaccine seen on the upper arms of those of us from the older generations is now a curiosity of the past. Smallpox vaccination ended in the United States in 1972.
All this leads us, of course, to our current time, as people grapple with the idea of getting the vaccine for COVID-19. From the start of the vaccination campaign, the Centers for Disease Control has maintained that getting even one dose of vaccine will make it more likely that people will have milder cases of COVID and lower mortality than those who are unvaccinated. It is my hope that the sorrowful memory of the deaths of these children, my long-forgotten relatives, will serve as a reminder not only of how far we have come but how much we have to lose.