A Rash of Rashes

This week I suddenly felt transported back to my earliest years in medicine back in Sweden. In the last few days I have seen almost a dozen children with rashes. We have a Hand, Foot and Mouth epidemic in our little town, hitting the second and fourth grade children hardest.

One eleven year old boy had looked like an early strep throat a few days ago, but he came back today with subtle red spots on the palms of his hands. He was in the room across the hall from his two-year old cousin, who had a full blown case of HFMD, the worst I have seen all week. His aunt had sore, itchy palms with no rash. I don’t know if it’s a sympathy reaction or if she is next to come down with it.

Mixed in with the rest of them was a two year old from out of town with a sketchy immunization history and a bad case of chickenpox, and a handful of children with colds and worried parents. One little boy with a runny nose had one single macular lesion on his thumb – too soon to tell whether he is coming down with Hand, Foot and Mouth disease or not.

Working acute care in Sweden, I saw a lot of rashes, and in those days we did not have all the immunizations we have now. I remember feeling pretty confident with my differential diagnosis of rashes – measles, German Measels, scarlet fever, things we don’t see much of anymore. Scarlet fever, associated with streptococcus infections, was common then but is rare these days. We also saw enough post-streptococcal nephritis that I routinely brought strep patients back for a urinalysis after their sore throat had resolved.

I remember the varied reactions among parents during the small epidemics I witnessed in those early days. Most parents took things in stride, expressing gratitude that their children got their “normal childhood diseases” over and done with. Some parents even sought out chickenpox cases in their neighborhoods and had chicken pox parties in order to have some control over when their children got the disease. I just read somewhere that the Swedes still aren’t immunizing children against chickenpox, apparently for cost reasons.

When I worked in student health here in the U.S. in the late 1980’s, we had a measles epidemic at the university. Because the students had been immunized as children, they tended to get milder and atypical forms of the disease. I remember being called in to see my colleagues’ cases all the time as the local expert on the rashes of “childhood diseases”.

Hand, Foot and Mouth disease was first described in New Zealand (or Australia by some accounts) in the 1950’s. I don’t remember running into it often back when I used to see measles and German measles. I remember just calling it a coxsackie virus rash. Recently I have read that the Swedes call the disease “höstblåsor”, or “autumn blisters”. I do remember seeing more “herpangina”, which looks the same and is also caused by a coxsackie virus, but is limited to the mouth.

There is no widely available vaccine against Hand, Foot and Mouth disease, and antiviral drugs are ineffective against it, but it tends to be a very benign illness. Some of the eleven viruses that can cause the disease are more aggressive, and in other parts of the world, for example Vietnam, the disease can more often be associated with neurological complications, from minor twitching to convulsions.

The way our society reacts to the mild form of the disease that we usually see is interesting. People worry about second graders missing a week of school – something I have a little trouble with. The economic burden of working parents missing work is a valid concern, but with so few “childhood diseases” left to contend with, a week of reading, watching movies or playing games at home isn’t the end of the world.

Our few remaining “childhood diseases” take the time they take to get through, and we have no shortcuts. They offer us an opportunity to understand that we can’t control everything in our lives.

Hand, Foot and Mouth disease usually only strikes once, so unlike the common cold, it has not become big business for purveyors of useless remedies, and unlike influenza, we have no big-ticket disease modifying drugs, so we are left to practice good home care, humility and the ancient art of just “being sick”.

America’s favorite mid-century pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, wrote the following about the “childhood diseases”:

“There are only two things a child will share willingly — communicable diseases and his mother’s age.”

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