Viral Diseases of the 1950s and 1960s

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases

By Barry C. Fox, M.D., University of Wisconsin

Viral diseases have always presented challenges in the medical field, and during the 1950s and 1960s there were few infectious diseases that proved to be nuisance to the American public. It is, therefore, important to examine certain facts about some of the viral diseases that were obstinately prevalent during that time.

Image of a woman suffering from the common cold.
One of the most irritating viral diseases is the common cold that can last up to two weeks. (Image: Pormezz/Shutterstock)

Is Common Cold a Viral Disease?

The common cold is one of the most annoying illnesses that children suffer from—an average of six episodes a year and adults average three times a year. Common colds are caused by the rhinoviruses and usually last for about a week. However, there are certain issues regarding colds that need to be clarified.

A patient is most contagious during the second and third days when the viral burden is highest and coughing, sneezing, and congestion are at their peak. For adults, symptomatic over-the-counter cold medications can help improve their condition. However, these medications are not recommended for children. It is crucial to know that the symptoms of colds last for more than 7 days in 25 percent of those afflicted.

Does Food Help in Recovering from a Cold and Fever?

It was thought that eating food would generate warmth during a cold and not eating food would keep a person cooler during a fever.

However, doctors today believe that one should both feed a cold and a fever for two reasons—food provides energy to fight the cold, and during a fever, a person’s metabolism is increased, and more calories are burnt. Hence, one needs to eat more for energy. If a person has a sore throat, and he or she does not feel like eating or drinking, maybe some of homemade soup could help.

Learn more about the milestones in infectious disease history.

Chicken Soup to the Rescue

Chicken soup has actually been called the ‘Jewish penicillin’, which was recommended for respiratory illnesses in the 12th-century by Egyptian Jewish physician Moshe ben Maimon.

Around the world, there are various remedies for basic illnesses like a cold or the flu. In Israel, it is mint tea; in Japan, it is a sour pickled plum called umeboshi. In Russia, it is a drink called Gogol-Mogol that is made from raw eggs, honey, warm milk, and butter, and topped off with a shot of rum or cognac.

So, do home remedies have any benefits? Most of the home remedies have not been scientifically researched in detail. They are, for most part, harmless and possibly could help recover from a cold and fever. The best recommendation is to get extra rest, stay hydrated, and treat the symptoms of the illness.

No Cure for Cold?

Surprisingly, after so many years, there is still no cure for the common cold. One major problem is that there are more than 100 known cold viruses, and, as a result, it is difficult to develop a drug that could target all the viruses.

There are three types of the cold virus—A, B, and C—and the protein coat of the C virus were unmapped until recently. Since 50 percent of cold infections are caused by the C variant, a vaccine targeting the surface proteins was ineffective.

This is a transcript from the video series An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

Viral Diseases of the ‘Hippie Generation’

Image showing the AIDs ribbon.
The 1960s brought some challenging viral diseases. (Image: Alexxndr/Shutterstock)

The 1960s was an entirely different era that brought new diseases and challenges. The risky behavior of the ‘hippie generation’ of the 1960s brought some challenging viral diseases—sexually transmitted diseases or STDs being one of them.

Intravenous drug experimentation in the 1960s led to the sharing of needles among the young people, which, in turn, led to the rise of hepatitis—the inflammation of the liver. Tattoos created with incompletely sterilized needles were another way that blood-sharing behaviors resulted in hepatitis.

The Alphabet Soup of Hepatitis Viruses

Hepatitis A is usually associated with contaminated food and drinks, and is spread by the fecal-oral route. However, it does not cause permanent liver damage.

Hepatitis B, on the other hand, is transmitted through contaminated blood, and sometimes through sexual contact. Fortunately, a hepatitis B vaccine was developed in the mid-1980s, and eventually, universal vaccination for hepatitis B has become the norm.

Hepatitis C is usually acquired via contaminated blood, and rarely through sexual contact. Intravenous drug experimentation and blood transfusions before a test for the virus were available in 1989 are the major means of acquisition. Although a large number of baby boomers contracted hepatitis C in the generation of the ’60s or ’70s, the disease was not officially identified until 1989. Since the incubation period of a clinical illness is usually 20 to 30 years, this illness remained under the radar screen for a couple of more decades as those infected were usually asymptomatic.

At present, thousands of deaths worldwide are caused by hepatitis B and C from eventual liver failure from decades of chronic infection.

Learn more about the respiratory and brain infections.

Treatment of Hepatitis C

Image showing a bottle of interferon.
In the 1900s, antiviral medications were used on a trial basis, including the drug Interferon. (Image: Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock)

Antiviral medications were trialed in the 1990s for hepatitis C, including the drug Interferon. This is an interesting remedy because it is naturally produced from humans in response to any viral illness. Hence, this has general antiviral properties.

It is an interesting observation that a person does not get sick with two virus infections at the same time. It is because the Interferon produced in response to one infection protects an individual for a short time from the other. Eventually, Interferon was commercially produced by recombinant DNA technology and became available for hepatitis treatment. Unfortunately, the clinical success rate of interferon for hepatitis C, even when combined with another antiviral medication called ribavirin, was no better than a 50 percent remission.

Other breakthroughs in the treatment of hepatitis C occurred after 2010 with the development of the protease inhibitor class of drugs that blocked the virus as it tried to exit the liver cells.

It is a tribute to modern medicine that we now view hepatitis C as a viral condition that has the potential for cure. These protease inhibitors, when taken for 12 to 24 weeks, give hepatitis C victims a chance to live virus-free.

Common Questions about the Viral Diseases of the 1950s and 1960s

Q: What causes the common cold?

Common colds are caused by the rhinoviruses and usually last for about a week.

Q: Why is it difficult to develop a drug for the cold viruses?

There are more than 100 known cold viruses, thus, it is difficult to develop a drug that could target all of them.

Q: How is hepatitis B transmitted?

Hepatitis B transmitted through contaminated blood, and sometimes through sexual contact.

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