Dealing with illness is hard for anyone, but it’s especially hard on kids. This is why childhood illness is so tragic. Whenever we hear about a child dealing with a tragic illness of some sort, it strikes a chord within us. We feel horrible for that kid, because we know that children deserve horrible illnesses the least out of anyone else. That’s why there’s so much focus on preventing childhood illnesses and making sure that they don’t have to suffer from them anymore. While some diseases have largely been eradicated, others are still big issues for kids and their families everywhere. Worse, some illnesses are caused by parents who put their children in the line of fire.
There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to childhood illness. While some of the illnesses we’re going to talk about affect adults and go on to follow children into adulthood, others strike hard and fast and only target children. Regardless, all of these illnesses have taken the lives of children of any age, class, and creed. While some can be contracted by bug bites or a germ, others are developed over time. Some kids are also born with different disorders that make life that much harder. On top of that, some diseases are almost too complex or horrifying to be real, although unfortunately, they are. Here are fifteen diseases that often strike in childhood, and why they’re almost too unbelievable to be real, that affect kids everywhere every day.
15. Chagas Disease
Chagas disease is a tropical disease that gets spread about by “kissing bugs” which spread around single-celled organisms that are scientifically known as Trypanosoma cruzi. 6.6 million people had Chagas in 2015, and eight thousand people die from it every year. Kids are no exception to this. There are two stages of Chagas: chronic and acute. An acute Chagas infection shows up during the first few weeks of incubation, and it shows up with symptoms that aren’t unlike the flu. After that, the symptoms resolve themselves in 90% of people, but they still have the disease and enter the chronic phase with it. Most people never develop symptoms in the chronic stage, but 20-40% of people with chronic Chagas do, and those symptoms are life-threatening. 10% of people with Chagas are especially unlucky because they go right from the acute stage to the symptomatic chronic stage.
14. Cystic Fibrosis
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, but it can also affect other organs like the liver and pancreas. Long-term issues include difficulty breathing and lots of lung infections. It can even cause infertility in males. Because cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder, children who have it are born with it. It’s a genetic mutation that happens when two parents with the carrier gene have a child, and both carrier genes are passed on to that child. That means that cystic fibrosis can show up through no fault of anyone’s own, but just because of bad luck. Women who have the carrier gene who get pregnant have to get their fetus tested to see if they’re going to be born with the disorder. There’s no cure for cystic fibrosis, but there are treatments. While many people grow up with CF and end up living full lives, infants who had CF 70 years ago were unlikely to live beyond their first birthday.
Diphtheria is an infection that can show up with either mild symptoms or severe ones. It can cause skin lesions that spread the disease themselves, and it can even swell the necks of their victims and cause lesions in their throats that literally cover their windpipes and make it nearly impossible to breathe. While there are vaccines available, diphtheria still kills people and is fatal in 5-10% of cases. Outbreaks still happen all the time, especially among unvaccinated kids. That’s where the horror of this really comes in: the fact that this disease is pretty preventable. This just goes to show how important vaccination is, not just for us but for future generations.
12. Osgood-Schlatter Disease
Osgood-Schattler disease, or OSD, isn’t an infection, but inflammation of a certain ligament in the knee. While it often occurs due to overuse, some kids get it because of a growth spurt or some other random happenstance, and sometimes it happens for no apparent reason at all. Some famous people, like Paul Scholes and Mick Bennett, have OSD. It happens among kids ages 9-16 the most, but it tends to affect boys more often at a ratio of nearly 7:1. This disease leads kids to need painkillers and physical therapy just to function, and some kids end up needed leg braces just to lessen the pain. While PSD can be debilitating, it often resolves itself as the growth plate closes.
11. Scarlet Fever
Scarlet fever is a result of a streptococcus infection, and it comes with a lot of the trappings of strep throat. Scarlet fever is actually a complication of strep throat, and you can tell when someone has it just by looking at their tongue, which will have a weird kind of strawberry appearance. They’ll also get a unique rash that gets worse in the folds of the skin and can even cover the uvula. While scarlet fever isn’t as much of an issue anymore, this disease was an incredibly effective killer of children back before treatments were established to take care of it.
This was actually the disease that killed Beth in Little Women if any of you remember the book. Her death was based on the real-life death of Louisa May Alcott’s little sister Lizzie. Reading the book gave us a glimpse of what it was like to watch someone die of scarlet fever, but reading it pales in comparison to having to live through and witness that tragedy. There’s no vaccine for this infection either, which is why it’s so important to treat strep throat fully and completely. Strep throat can come back if you don’t use all of your antibiotics to kill the infection, and if the infection reemerges, it can come back more resistant to antibiotics or it can manifest as scarlet fever.
10. Hand, Foot And Mouth Disease
Hand, foot and mouth disease isn’t actually one virus, it’s a group of them. This tends to start off with a fever, like most infections, but after a day or so, flat spots start showing up around the mouth and on the hands and feet. Sometimes they end up on your buttocks and genitals, but that’s more of an occasional thing. While the rash tends to go away in a few days, the disease also has a complication that most people don’t know about: it makes your fingernails and toenails fall out, and those take weeks to grow back. While this disease can be prevented by good hygiene and staying home when you’re sick, there’s no vaccine for it and it shows up all over the world, so small outbreaks of this disease can happen anytime in nursery schools or kindergartens. Since 1997, large outbreaks have been showing up in Asia. While this disease can affect adults, it most often affects kids under the age of five.
9. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy
Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a genetic disorder that affects boys more often, but girls can inherit the disease as well. It begins early on in life and makes it so the patient loses muscle over the course of time. Some kids who show symptoms of DMD are unable to walk by the age of twelve. Some of those kids need physical therapy or braces to help with some of the symptoms, while others might need help breathing if their respiratory system is in any way affected. To make matters worse, the average life expectancy for kids with DMD is about 26. If someone who got very good treatment and is very lucky, they might end up living into their thirties or forties, but this is very far from a normal life expectancy. There are other kinds of muscular dystrophy, but this is by far the most common one. The reason why this disease is so horrifying is that it starts so young in a child’s life, and they’re born with it because it’s a genetic disease. On top of that, it robs the child of their ability to move and in some cases, the ability to breathe on their own. The disease makes it hard for the children who have it to be kids.
8. Swine Flu
Swine flu is basically any kind of influenza virus that’s common in pigs. The first case of swine flu was in 2009 in Mexico, so it wasn’t really that long ago that we first became aware that it was possible to catch the flu from pigs. As we learned more about swine flu, we learned that there were different types of swine flu, including the dreaded H1N1 virus that’s been the most publicized. Swine flu basically takes the symptoms of the regular flu and dials them up to eleven. Luckily, the swine flu pandemic was declared officially over in 2010. Unfortunately, while the pandemic was largely over, it hasn’t stopped tens of thousands of people from being infected with a strain of swine flu since then. One such notable case would be the outbreak of swine flu in India back in March 2015, where over 30,000 people tested positive for swine flu and 1,841 people died because of it. Countless children have been affected by swine flu, the same way adults have been.
Roseola isn’t especially horrifying when it comes to symptoms. It’s a relatively common viral infection that doesn’t often end up with anything serious happening. It causes a rash and a few days of fever, but that’s about it. The scary part about this is that roseola is caused by two common strains of herpes, but it’s still so common that most kids end up getting it by the time they hit kindergarten, and adults can still get it on occasion. There are also some complications that show up every so often that can cause a really high fever, which can give way to other major issues. It also tends to infect kids that are under the age of two. While this is probably one of the better childhood diseases to get, it still isn’t pleasant, and I’m sure it’s really scared countless parents who didn’t know what was happening.
Polio is an infectious disease that causes paralysis, sometimes over the course of days. Some people can fully recover from the disease, but others end up paralyzed for life. This disease was the scourge of whole societies before vaccines wiped it out in the developed world. Not only can this disease cause permanent paralysis over the course of a short period of time, it can even show back up in an adult’s life in the form of post-polio syndrome, where slow muscle weakness starts to develop, resulting in the adult being reduced to the state they were in when they first got infected with the disease as a child. On top of that, once you actually contract polio, there’s no specific treatment for it, so in places where polio is still a danger, the only thing that can be done is to manage the symptoms as they arise and hope it doesn’t cause too much damage.
Measles is a good example of a disease affecting children that shouldn’t be affecting us at all anymore but is because of the vaccination debate. Measles is a disease that spreads almost aggressively easily, but thanks to vaccination, it was basically eliminated by last year. The problem arises when people choose not to vaccinate their children and leave them open to getting an infection that used to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths a year. Not only are children more vulnerable to the disease, they’re a lot more likely to deal with complications from measles as well. However, there’s a dangerous belief going around that measles isn’t a viral infection, but a psychosomatic one that shows up because the person believes that they’re sick. People who believe this will often continue to believe it even after being presented with undeniable evidence to the contrary.
Tetanus is a horrifying disease that’s commonly known as lockjaw. Basically, your jaw spasms, and then those spasms spread out towards the rest of the body. That’s already horrifying enough, but it gets worse when you realize that those spasms are potentially strong enough to fracture your bones. This is aside from the fevers, sweating, and circulation issues that come with tetanus. Luckily, this is another disease that can be prevented with a vaccine and doesn’t spread from person to person, but the problem with this disease is that it can be transmitted through a break in the skin, like a dog bite. If the disease isn’t treated right away and it starts to affect a person’s breathing, they might end up needing a mechanical ventilator. Now imagine a small child going through that.
Pertussis is also known as whooping cough, and it’s a highly contagious and scary disease that affects children and babies. It also earned the name “100-day cough” because it looks just like a cold, except for the fact that the patient has a cough so violent, it can cause vomiting and broken ribs, and it can go on for weeks. Children under the age of one can contract the disease as well, but when they get it, they often don’t cough at all. Instead, they just stop breathing from time to time. There’s a vaccine for pertussis, but without herd immunity, many kids would still be vulnerable to it because they’re simply too young for the complete vaccination. Herd immunity is when people are protected from a disease they’re not vaccinated from because they’re surrounded by people who have been exposed to that disease, whether by vaccination or otherwise. Without this, huge chunks of the most vulnerable parts of our population might find themselves coughing themselves to death.
While leukemia doesn’t just affect children, we most often hear stories about leukemia affecting children. Unlike most of the diseases we’ve talked about, leukemia isn’t an infection, it’s a type of cancer that affects blood cells. This means that this is a type of cancer that can’t be treated by simply cutting the cancer cells out because the cancer cells can travel throughout a person’s body. The symptoms of leukemia include fatigue, fevers, bleeding and bruising issues, and the increased likelihood of getting infections because of the way leukemia attacks white blood cells, the part of your blood that fights off disease. There are four different common types of leukemia: acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), not to mention several less common ones. While kids under fifteen often survive past five years, it’s a horrifying disease to deal with even as an adult, so it’s even harder to imagine going through it while still being a child. This is putting aside the horrors of chemotherapy treatments and the side effects of that.
Asthma is a really common disease that everyone’s been exposed to in their lives, whether they have it or someone in their life does. It might seem strange to see this disease on a list like this, but to be honest, asthma is horrifying. We often take breathing for granted, but when your throat can close up at any given moment for no reason, and the only thing keeping you from falling into unconsciousness or dying is an asthma pump that can be difficult to procure and easy to forget or lose, your relationship to breathing changes. Also, asthma is a disease that hundreds of millions of people get, and a huge chunk of those millions are children. It’s been around since Ancient Egypt, and there are so many things that can cause it that no one really has a concrete answer to how it begins. Asthma in kids can also be caused by the choices of their parents, sadly. If a parent smokes in close quarters with their children, they’re that much more likely to get it. Even if they don’t, they can still get it.
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