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Old Nasty diseases

Updated on December 11, 2008

The black death

Across Europe in the 1300s one-third of all people died from what was called the “Black Death”. The Black Death began like flu. Victims of the plague had fever, headaches, aching joints, vomiting, weakness, and swellings in the armpits. Within a week their skin often turned dark purple before they died. This is where the name “Black Death” came from. No one knew that it was caused by a bacteria carried by rat-flees, and sometimes other rodents.


Some disease often strike young people more than adults. One of the most common infectious childhood disease is chickenpox. It is very itchy because the chickenpox virus leaves the skin with hundreds of pus-filled blisters. These burst and form scabs. Children who get chickenpox usually have very itchy skin for about a week, the only lasting effect of chickenpox is a few tiny scars left from the blisters that covered the skin. In most cases today healthy children soon recover as their bodies can fight the illness. Then they are usually immune to the disease and never catch it again.


Smallpox is a virus that spreads through direct contact and on bedding or clothes, and is highly infectious dangerous disease causing blisters all over the body. This disease killed about one-third of the children who caught it. Those who survived could be left blind or scarred with pockmarks.


Measles is a very common disease that has affected millions of young people over thousands of years. It spread through sneezing, and starts with a sore throat, runny nose, and fever. Then an itchy rash appears on the skin. Although measles only lasts for about a week if a healthy person gets it it can be a nasty disease for anyone with no resistance.


Diphtheria was once one of the most common causes of death in children, usually where they were crowded together in dirty homes. Diphtheria starts like flu, with a fever and a sore throat. People catch it by breathing in diphtheria bacteria from droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also be spread by touching used tissues, or by drinking from a glass used by an infected person. The disease causes breathing problems, heart failure, and sometimes death. Nearly one out of every ten children who catch diphtheria will die from it.

Whooping cough

Whooping cough is a highly infectious disease caused by bacteria. It can now be prevented with vaccine. Whooping cough starts like a cold and leads to a hacking cough with a “whoop” noise as the child tries to breathe. It lasts about six weeks, when the child finds it hard to sleep and eat.


Tuberculosis (TB) was another deadly disease that spread quickly in crowded slums. TB causes fever, loss of weight, sweating at night, chills, and coughing up of blood, damaging victim‘s lungs.


A cruel illness called polio has struck down young people all through history. They often caught it from infected water. It attacked their nervous system and often left them disabled for life. Polio starts with a headache, fever, and stiffness in the body. The limbs can become paralysed. Sometimes breathing becomes so difficult that the victim dies from suffocation.


Malaria is one disease that attacks children and adults in many hot countries. This dreaded illness has killed more people throughout history than any other. With one bite, a mosquito carrying malaria can pass tiny parasites into the bloodstream. This causes a fever like flu. It may damage the brain, make parts of the body fail, and even kill.


The early warning sign of meningitis include high fever, neck stiffness, rash, bad headache, a dislike of bright lights and sound. It disease can be treated but it has to be caught quickly.

Most of these diseases have become history, or we have effective vaccine and cure for them, but many people today have to face another threat. Millions of people carry the HIV virus that can develop into the disease called AIDS. AIDS causes the immune system to fail so the body can no longer fight infections properly. There is still no known cure.


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