1919–1930 encephalitis lethargica epidemic

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1919–1930 Encephalitis Lethargica Epidemic

The 1919–1930 Encephalitis Lethargica Epidemic was a devastating outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, also known as the sleeping sickness, that swept across the globe between 1919 and 1930. This epidemic is notable for its widespread impact and the mystery surrounding its cause and sudden disappearance. Encephalitis lethargica is characterized by high fever, headache, delayed physical and mental response, and in severe cases, coma. The epidemic affected millions of people worldwide, with a significant mortality rate and leaving many survivors with long-term neurological damage.

Causes and Symptoms[edit | edit source]

The exact cause of the 1919–1930 encephalitis lethargica epidemic remains unknown. Researchers have speculated that the disease could be linked to the influenza virus, given the concurrent 1918 influenza pandemic, although no direct connection has been conclusively proven. Symptoms of encephalitis lethargica include severe inflammation of the brain, leading to somnolence, fever, and in some cases, a catatonic state resembling deep sleep. Patients who survived often suffered from post-encephalitic Parkinson's disease, characterized by severe neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Impact[edit | edit source]

The epidemic had a profound impact on global health, with an estimated 1 million cases occurring worldwide. The mortality rate ranged from 20% to 40%, with many survivors experiencing severe neurological sequelae. The epidemic prompted significant advancements in the fields of neurology and virology, as scientists sought to understand the disease and develop treatments. However, the cause of the epidemic was never definitively identified, and no effective vaccine or cure was developed during the outbreak.

Legacy[edit | edit source]

The 1919–1930 encephalitis lethargica epidemic left a lasting legacy in the medical and scientific communities. It highlighted the need for improved surveillance and response systems for epidemic diseases and contributed to the development of modern neurology and infectious disease specialties. The epidemic also inspired cultural reflections, including the work of Oliver Sacks in his book "Awakenings," which detailed the experiences of encephalitis lethargica survivors treated with L-DOPA in the 1960s, leading to a temporary awakening from their post-encephalitic state.

See Also[edit | edit source]


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Contributors: Prab R. Tumpati, MD