Infectious Diseases - Timeline

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  • Infectious Diseases: Timeline
  • Edward Jenner and vaccination
  • Ignaz Semmelweiss and the spread of infection
  • Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease
  • Joseph Lister and antiseptic surgery
  • Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin
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Ignaz Semmelweiss and the spread of infection

When most women had their babies at home, looked after by women in the family or a local midwife, serious infections after the birth were quite rare. But in the late 18th and 19th century doctors began to deliver babies more often, hospitals set up maternity wards and the problems began. Soon after giving birth many women developed a range of symptoms including severe pain, high fever, inflammation of the womb, vomiting and convulsions. Death usually followed within 5 days. This dreadful illness, known as childbed or puerperal fever, killed many women who had a baby in hospital. Nobody really understood why this was happening.

Ignaz Semmelweiss (sometimes spelled Semmelweis) was a Hungarian doctor who worked in the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital. The hospital had two delivery rooms, one staffed by female midwives and the other by medical students. Over 12% of the women whose babies were delivered by the doctors died of childbed fever, more than three times as many as those delivered by midwives. Semmelweiss realised that his medical students often went straight from dissecting a dead body to delivering a baby without washing their hands first. He wondered if they were carrying the cause of the disease on their hands from the corpses to their patients.

Semmelweiss overseeing young doctors washing their hands

Semmelweiss overseeing young doctors washing their hands

Then another doctor cut himself while dissecting a body, and died of an infection with symptoms identical to those of childbed fever. Now Semmelweiss was convinced that the deadly fever was caused by an infectious agent. He insisted that the medical students wash their hands in chlorinated lime before they went onto the maternity ward. Eventually he insisted that they wash their hands between each patient as well. Within 6 months the death rate for Semmelweiss's patients had dropped to a quarter of the original figure. In 2 years it had dropped to just over 1%.

Semmelweiss could not get other doctors to accept his findings, in spite of all the evidence he collected. Many doctors thought that pain and suffering during and after childbirth was God's punishment to women. It was also hard for many doctors to admit that they themselves might have killed their patients instead of curing them.

Hand washing was much more difficult in the 19th century that it is today. There was no running water in the buildings. All the water was cold and the chemicals used to wash in, such as chlorinated lime, eventually damaged the skin on the hands.

Without understanding the cause of infectious diseases Semmelweiss had discovered a key factor in preventing the spread of pathogens which is just as important now in the 21st century as it was in the 19th century.

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Medicine that acts against bacterial infections. Penicillin is an example of an antibiotic.
Protein that is produced by lymphocytes (white blood cells) and that attaches to a specific antigen.
Molecule on the surface of a pathogen that identifies it as a foreign invader to the immune system.
Single-celled organism. Has a cell wall, cell membrane, cytoplasm. Its DNA is loosely-coiled in the cytoplasm and there is no distinct nucleus.
The use of biological organisms or enzymes to create, break down or transform a material
To cut apart, or separate, tissue especially for anatomical study.
Exponential growth
If something is growing exponentially the larger the quantity gets, the faster it grows
Micro-organism that can grow in long tubes called hyphae or as single cells. Fungi have a nucleus, cytoplasm and a cell wall.
Herd immunity
If a high percentage of a population is immune to a disease the disease cannot be passed on because it cannot find new hosts.
Infection caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It attacks and destroys the immune system.
Hybridoma cells are formed by fusing a specific antibody-producing cell with a type of cancer cell that grows well in tissue culture
Immune system
The body's natural defence mechanism against infectious diseases.
A process which gives immune resistance to a particular disease. The human or animal is exposed to a harmless antigen in order to raise antibodies and provide an immune memory.
A type of white blood cell that make antibodies to fight off infections.
A type of white blood cell that consumes dead pathogens that have been killed by antibodies.
Organism that feeds off another living host and causes it some damage. An example of a parasite is a tapeworm that lives in the digestive system of a host organism.
A micro-organism that causes disease.
Phagocytes are the white blood cells that protect the body by ingesting harmful foreign particles, bacteria, and dead or dying cells.
A polymer made up of amino acids joined by peptide bonds. The amino acids present and the order in which they occur vary from one protein to another.
Protozoa are one-celled animals
A spore is a reproductive structure that is adapted for dispersal and surviving for extended periods of time in unfavourable conditions.
A poisonous or toxic substance - produced by pathogens.
A small amount of dead or weakened pathogen is introduced into the body. It prepares the immune system to prevent future infections with the live pathogen.
Medicine that contains a dead or weakened pathogen. It stimulates the immune system so that the vaccinated person has an immunity against that particular disease.
The smallest of living organisms. Viruses are made up of a ball of protein that contains a small amount of the virus DNA. They can only reproduce after they have infected a host cell.
World Health Organization.
Chlorinated Lime
A mixture of calcium hydroxide, calcium chloride and calcium hypochlorite.
Free of pathogens. An aseptic technique is one performed under sterile conditions.
A chemical which can destroy microorganisms. Antiseptics are applied to the surface of the skin or to living tissue to reduce the possibility of infection.