Miscellaneous Diseases

In Korea, as in China and Japan, there is no clear historical description of a disease corresponding to diphtheria until the modern age, perhaps because diphtheria is not strongly associated with dramatic epidemics of high mortality. Indeed, mild cases are not unusual, and immunity is often quietly acquired at an early age. Avison (1897) thought it very strange that diphtheria was so rare in Korea. He had seen a few cases that he was certain were diphtheria, but some physicians claimed that the disease was not found in Korea.

By contrast, twentieth-century physicians found diphtheria to be rather common in Korea. In 1937 there were 2,361 cases, with 608 deaths. The fatality rates varied from 21 to 29 percent over a 12-year period.

Scarlet fever was also quite common in the 1940s. Between 1929 and 1937 reported cases varied from 937 to 2,190 per year, with fatality rates from 10 to 15 percent. Mumps, whooping cough, poliomyelitis, and encephalitis were also reported in the 1940s (Simmons et al. 1944).

Outbreaks of cerebrospinal meningitis continued to occur in the modern period, with a major epidemic taking place in 1934-5. The disease remained endemic in the 1940s, with about 50 to 500 cases reported annually between the years 1929 and 1937. The fatality rate varied from about 50 to 60 percent (Simmons et al. 1944).

Leptospirosis, also known as Weil's disease, or infectious jaundice, was endemic in Korea. The disease is spread via food or water contaminated by the urine and feces of infected rats. Rat-bite fever, caused by Spirillum minus, was transmitted by the bite of infected rats.

While visiting a drugstore in Seoul with his interpreter, Woods (see the first section of this chapter) examined many roots and herbs that were all said to be "good for the stomach!" This suggests, of course, that digestive disorders were common. Gastritis seemed to be the major disease in the category of stomach diseases, although Avison thought that common complaints of chronic indigestion included many cases of stomach ulcers.

The Avison family learned that rabies was a fairly common threat when two of the children were bitten by a rabid dog. Rabies was still a problem in the 1940s because of the large numbers of stray dogs.

And finally, according to Woods's informants, midwifery was practiced by old women, who consulted physicians in difficult cases. Many of the midwives were reportedly skillful and able to perform the manipulations necessary in correcting unnatural presentations (Bohm and Swartout, Jr. 1984). Lack of cleanliness in the instruments used to cut the umbilical cord was responsible for many cases of neonatal tetanus in infants, even in the 1940s (Simmons et al. 1944).

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