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Mistaken Infection 'On The Prairie'?
Date:2/4/2013

By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Feb. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Fans of the pioneer tales known as "Little House on the Prairie" are familiar with the ravages of scarlet fever.

That's because Mary Ingalls -- sister of the autobiographical series' author, Laura Ingalls Wilder -- went blind, supposedly because of complications from the illness.

But medical experts today think it's time that explanation went the way of the wagon wheel.

"Scarlet fever is unlikely because there isn't eye involvement with that disease," said Sarah Allexan, coauthor of a new article detailing Mary's illness.

The results of Allexan's detective work were released online Feb. 4 in the journal Pediatrics.

In a book from the Little House series called By the Shores of Silver Lake, Ingalls Wilder wrote: "Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes and Mary was blind."

Scarlet fever, caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, caused many deaths of U.S. children between 1840 and 1883, according to the historical review. Up to 30 percent of children who had scarlet fever died during that time period. In the early 1900s, scarlet fever, measles, meningitis and other "diseases of the head" were believed to be the top four causes of blindness in the United States.

Without a known explanation, deaths from scarlet fever began to drop in the early 1900s, even before antibiotics were introduced, according to the review.

What also remains largely unexplained is how scarlet fever could have caused blindness. Allexan, who was studying at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor when she started the review and is now a student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, suspects that many cases of blindness that were attributed to scarlet fever might have been caused by meningitis instead.

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