A Forgotten Epidemic

Encephalitis, also known as acquired brain injury, is an inflammation of the brain. Most of the types of encephalitis are caused by viral infection. 

Between 1915 and 1926, an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica spread throughout the world, affecting five million people, a third of whom died in acute stages. Those who survived were conscious but not fully awake – sitting motionless and speechless all day, lacking motivation to do anything. 

In the spring and summer of 1969, the late Dr Oliver Sacks began to use the drug, L-Dopa at Mount Carmel – a total palliative care centre. This sparked the “awakening” of fifty individuals. They emerged from their decades-long isolation and find themselves back in the world. They all began to dance and talk together, and delighted in each other’s daily-increasing health and vitality. There was communal health, of shared excitement and hope.

However, in September, there emerged tribulations of all sorts. Some suffered treacherous side-effects of L-Dopa, such as respiratory crises, while others to their own regressive needs. In the small wards, the despondency would spread from one to another. Every setback then aroused fear in others and every discouragement a blow to the morale of the community. The atmosphere of the ward, its mood, became all important.

The condition of encephalitis lethargica is poignantly expressed in the following recounts.

“Nothing, just nothing.” Miss R would say when asked what she was thinking about.

“I think of a thought, and it’s suddenly gone – like having a picture whipped out of its frame. Or I try to picture something in my mind, but the picture dissolves as fast as I can make it. I have a particular idea, but can’t keep it in mind; and then I lose the general idea; and then the general idea of a general idea; and in two or three jumps my mind is a blank – all my thoughts gone, blanked out or erased.” – Miss R

“She seems to have no appetite for anything, really no appetite for living.” wrote the speech-pathologist, Miss Kohl.

It is a wonder how the world can forget such a moment in history – when a strange disease stole the lives of millions, and for which a cause has yet to be determined. Also, it serves the question of “Should life be sustained, when all hope seems lost? Especially since these cases have shown that recovery is possible after a frozen state of 50 odd years.”

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