... before the invention of treatment for that disease - which one would it be and why?
That was the extra credit question on the final for my fall class on Health and Disease in Ancient Populations, helpfully proposed by my friend Laura.
Curious about the results, I tallied them up:
- The top scorer was the treponemal disease pinta, with 6 responses. This totally makes sense - pinta is a skin disease. Unlike its cousins bejel, yaws, and venereal syphilis, it doesn't cause bone changes and doesn't kill you. Every student who chose pinta suggested they could live with something that discolored their skin but didn't generate any more serious damage.
- Tied for second place, with 4 votes each, are the related diseases of tuberculosis and leprosy, both caused by a mycobacterium. These diseases can cause bony changes - the final stages of both TB and leprosy involve quite severe resorption or erosion of bone, resulting in the classic disfigurement of leprosy (in the nose, mouth, fingers, and toes) and the dowager's hump of tuberculosis. Most students who chose these diseases noted that the diseases carry low mortality rates and that only a small percentage of cases actually progress to the later stages that involve severe bone changes.
|Normal and leprous feet (credit)|
- And with 1 vote each: typhoid fever and measles. Typhoid fever can be pretty nasty - it's been suggested as a cause of the 5th century BC Plague of Athens. But a person can also carry typhoid fever and not be particularly sick, as in the infamous case of Typhoid Mary. And measles is a childhood disease that most people got prior to modern vaccines, kind of like chicken pox. Both diseases caused quite a number of deaths in the past, but if you survived them, you'd be doing ok.