Tuesday, 3 June 2014

52 Ancestors - Sleepy sickness, the forgotten epidemic

Gertrude Gwendolen Alice Garner 1910 - 1944

After World War 1, many people fell victim to a viral epidemic which killed over a million people, and affected many more.  Yet this illness has been overshadowed, understandably, by the 1918 flu pandemic, and consequently has been largely forgotten.

Encelphalitis lethargica, also known as sleepy sickness, cases began appearing as early as 1916, and reached its peak in the 1920s.  It claimed about half of its victims in its first stages, but many survivors ended up developing neurological problems later in life that would either lead to death or lock them in a coma for years on end.

My Great Aunt Gwen was one of those who fell prey to this terrible disease.  I have no idea when she contracted it or how it affected her.  Apparently she was prone to having "problems with her nerves", but then that was a common excuse for all sorts of ailments back then.  Her marriage to William (Bill) Neale didn't seem to last long, and I can't help but wonder if the illness was to blame. Not necessarily the final stage of it - as far as I know she left him before that began - but the middle period between the apparent recovery and the relapse.  This phase could be marked by a general loss of concentration and interest in life, which can't have been good for their relationship.

However this stage was usually the calm before the storm.  Many suffers, including Gwen, went on to develop post-encephalitic parkinsonism.  Symptoms could include a decrease in facial expressions, loss of control of movement, tremors, confusion and memory loss and there could be severe psychiatric changes.  Some victims lapsed into a catatonic state, and remained in a coma for years.

Gwen, my Dad's aunt, died in Leicester's mental hospital aged just 33.  I'd like to think that she and her family didn't suffer too much, but sadly I suspect that may not have been the case.  It was a dreadful disease, and a dreadful place to die.

*  Cases of encephalitis lethargica still arise, but fortunately are now very rare.  Scientists now believe it may be linked to a form of streptococcus bacteria, which commonly causes sore throats, or perhaps to flu viruses, but nothing appears to be conclusive and I suspect there will be a question mark over the real cause for some time to come. 

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