Deadly diseases suck no matter what, but imagine suffering through a long, painful illness, then learning in the afterlife that you could have avoided the whole ordeal by eating a couple of oranges or drinking a glass of milk. Because of advances in medical science, the diseases listed below that were once essentially death sentences are now not that big of a deal, rare anomalies as opposed to terrible facts of life.
Cretinism is a congenital disease characterized by stunted physical and mental development and the growth of large tumors on the thyroid gland (see illustration above). In the pre-modern age, it was common in some remote mountain villages in Southern Europe, so early Alpine climbers would sometimes stumble across unknown, isolated townships populated largely by three foot tall, shambling, misshapen cretins. Lovecraft would have been very pleased. It was originally thought to be was caused by “stagnant air” or drinking water laced with lime, but it turned out to be the result of thyroid problems. Because there was no iodine in the local soil, thyroid issues would flourish in some insulated communities. Nowadays, perhaps sadly, there are no villages left populated with stunted, deformed monster people, except Beverly Hills.
Scurvy (and Rickets)
The famous bane of pirates, seadogs, and other scallywags results in a slow, painful death. Scurvy begins with massive fatigue and lethargy, and progresses to intense pain, the appearance of blue and red spots on the skin, jaundice, and eventually, death by heart failure. On long voyages, sailors would begin the scurvy death spiral, and then, seemingly miraculously, return to health after their ship reached its destination. It wasn’t the hand of god that cured them, though; Scurvy is caused by a simple deficiency in Vitamin C, and can be treated with a glass of orange juice. It’s now an uncommon disease that mainly appears in two populations: The very, very poor, and people in first world countries who choose a diet that totally lacks fruits and veggies. Once it’s recognized, it can be treated quickly and easily. No mention of scurvy is complete without a shout-out to its sister disease, rickets. Characterized by painful skeletal deformities, rickets is cured by Vitamin D, like you might find in a glass of milk. Rickets and scurvy can be completely eliminated by your breakfast.
Named from the Sanskrit word rabhas, which means, “to do violence,” rabies is a viral infection that causes animal to go mad and attack anything around them. The rabies virus targets the central nervous system, and seems to short out any fear that animals might have, while giving them added aggression. A foaming mouth is a dead giveaway that an animal is rabid, and no creature, no matter how adorable, is safe. Cute bunnies, housecats and even chickens have transferred the disease to people. Once bitten, a person affected with rabies will become despondent, fatigued and confused, and then begin hallucinating. A crippling fear of water and difficulty in swallowing will result. Eventually, victims’ rabid brains stop regulating breathing, heartbeat and salivation, hence the foaming at the mouth. Ultimately, victims drown in their own spit or blood. Before a vaccine was developed in the 1880s, the treatment prescribed for people suffering from rabies was being smothered between mattresses. Nowadays, though, rabies is treatable, as long as you catch it early. If the vaccine is administered a few days after an infected bite, full-blown rabies won’t develop, and you won’t turn into a human Cujo.
Since Biblical times, leprosy has been as one of mankind’s most feared diseases, with lepers regarded not as sick people, but as sinners. Maybe the widespread societal shunning came from the fact that leprosy is so visually grotesque. The bacterial disease causes numbness and skin blemishes, and lepers sometimes lose the ability to blink. Leprosy also destroys the lining of the nose, causing it to collapse. In spite of popular myth, leprosy doesn’t make your fingers and toes drop off, but numbness in the extremities often results in disfiguring wounds. While its symptoms are certainly terrifying, maybe the scariest thing about leprosy is how lepers have been treated by the healthy. Prejudice against lepers was so strong in the United States; our official policy was to relocate lepers to remote, isolated colonies. Nowadays we know better: Leprosy, now known as Hansens’ disease, is curable, but some of the original inmates remain at the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii to this day, happily providing tours of their prison/home for eager sightseers.
Death By Swallowing Fish
It’s not exactly a disease, but death by swallowing fish seems to have been more common in the past than it is now. There are five deaths caused by living fish occluding the air passage cited in Norman Chever’s 1870 Manual of Medical Jurisprudence for India. It was thought at the time that the Indian habit of swimming around with your mouth open was partially to blame, but no matter the cause, a fish swimming into your throat is not a joke. The fish panics when trapped and swims harder, actively lodging itself deeper into your windpipe. Because the scale structure of fish makes it harder to pull a fish out than it is to stuff it down, doctors of the 1800’s advised mashing the offending animal down your gullet instead of trying to pry it out. Maybe its because we’ve changed how we swim, or maybe it’s because there are fewer fish, but death-by-fish is pretty rare these days, but it’s not unheard of. Case-in-point: An unlucky fisherman in Brazil who bet his friends he could hold a sole between his teeth. The fish spooked and swam into his air pipe. The man managed to drive his car to a hospital two miles away, with the fish flailing in his throat the whole way, but he didn’t make it in time, and died before doctors could save him.