Nations Defeating COVID-19 Echoes Facing Down Diseases of the Past

with covid-19 beaten in some nations, a look back at scarlet fever and early days of hiv

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Several countries are bringing their COVID-19 cases down to near zero, NPR reported. New Zealand is the world’s biggest success story, with Taiwan and Vietnam also reporting minimal new cases of the disease. Conquering infectious disease has changed a lot since the 1950s.

Close up of hands cleaning surface with disinfectant
Several nations have reduced the COVID-19 rate of infection down to zero. Photo by Maridav / Shutterstock

According to NPR, New Zealand leadership took a very specific role in confronting and containing the novel coronavirus. “In mid-March, as cases were exploding in Italy and Spain, [Prime Minister Jacinda] Ardern ordered anyone entering New Zealand into quarantine,” the article said. “At that point, the country had confirmed just six cases. A few days later, on March 19, Ardern shut down travel to the country, essentially banning all foreigners from entering the island nation of 4.8 million.”

The article went on to say that instead of speaking about the virus in a war-like tone, as many other world leaders have, Ardern appealed to New Zealanders to confront the crisis by protecting one another. The way we’ve approached disease in the last 60 to 70 years has changed drastically.

The Scarlet Fever Metric

Several diseases that ravaged the world in the 1950s have mostly died out due to developing medical protocols and treatments. One was rheumatic fever, which has become more rare since a protein in the germ that causes it changed several decades ago.

“Another common illness of the mid-20th century was Group A strep scarlet fever,” said Dr. Barry Fox, Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Several days after a sore throat, children broke out with a lacy, almost imperceptible rash of their entire body. In the 1950s, with penicillin available, children were usually kept home for a few days.

“In contrast, before the antibiotic era, this disease had almost a 25 percent mortality,” Dr. Fox said.

In other words, before antibiotics were commonly used, scarlet fever killed one in four people who contracted it. Nowadays, Dr. Fox said, the first day’s dosage of antibiotics is strong enough to stop a scarlet fever patient from being contagious. As the world stepped up to the plate to conquer scarlet fever, the change is like night and day.

The HIV Crisis

“Healthcare providers began sharing stories of a strange new illness in gay men in 1981,” Dr. Fox said. “The CDC reported in its weekly journal summary on five cases in previously healthy, young gay men with unusual infections whose immune systems were dysfunctional. Within the next six months, 270 cases had been reported, and there were 121 deaths—so the AIDS epidemic was born.”

Dr. Fox said that from 1981 to 1985, HIV was first discovered to be the cause of AIDS and a blood test for HIV was developed. Four years is a surprisingly short turnaround for such a major and unique disease.

“The 1990s brought some new medical developments, like chicken pox vaccines as well as novel antiviral drugs to treat both hepatitis and HIV,” Dr. Fox said.

The fight against HIV is far from over, but there has been remarkable progress in the last 40 years since it was introduced to humanity. Different diseases call for different approaches, and the novel coronavirus is no exception.

Image of Professor Barry Fox, M.D.

Dr. Barry Fox contributed to this article. Dr. Fox is a Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He received his undergraduate degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and his medical degree from Vanderbilt University.