Ancient Diseases Are Making A Comeback In The UK

James Gillray, 'The Gout', First published in May 1799. Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Scarlet fever, whooping cough, and gout might sound like archaic diseases from the smoggy streets of Dickensian London, but they are making a major comeback in the UK.  

Analysis of data from the UK National Health Service by the UK Labour party, the current government opposition, has revealed a 52 percent increase in four key “Victorian diseases” since 2010/2011. Many of these diseases are widely assumed to be from a bygone era before the wonders of sanitation, vaccination programs, and modern science. While the 20th century witnessed some progress against these diseases in the UK and beyond, the new research reminds us that these old enemies are not resigned to the history books just yet.

As per the new findings, life expectancy is also stalling across the UK, even declining in some poorer communities, and admissions to hospital for malnutrition have increased by 54 percent.

Cases of scarlet fever have skyrocketed within the past decade with a 208 percent increase, jumping from 429 cases in 2010/11 to 1,321 in 2017/18. This bacterial disease was one of the leading causes of death in children in the early 20th century. It can arise from a strep throat infection and can result in symptoms such as a sore throat, fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, and a characteristic pink-red rash.

Whooping cough was almost wiped out in the UK during the 1950s thanks to vaccination programs, however, hospital admissions for the disease are up 59 percent. Also known as pertussis, this is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways, causing people to suffer long bouts of repeated coughing. 

Gout has also experienced a 38 percent increase from 4,935 cases in 2010/11 to 6,824 in 2017/18. Commonly associated with a poor and unvaried diet, this is a painful form of arthritis that involves the build-up of uric acid and the formation crystals around the joints. In the 19th century, gout was the result of living large and eating a gluttonous diet, however, it's now more widely associated with junk food and heavy boozing.  

The research is grounded in independent data, however, it’s worth noting that it was released with the political aim to highlight the current government's austerity policies, which have seen large cuts to healthcare, social services, and other public services.

“Dickensian diseases on the rise in Tory Britain today,“ Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, said in an announcement.

“The damning truth is austerity is making our society sicker, it means the poor die younger,” he added.

"For the second year in a row our infant mortality rates have worsened. That means some of the most vulnerable poorly babies – often from the most deprived backgrounds – less likely to survive than babies in Western Europe."

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