Last summer, PKIDs’ advice nurse, Dr. Mary Beth, explained what fifth disease is: a viral rash that is tricky to contain because by the time you get the rash, you’re already through the contagious stage.
The rash itself is not painful and most children get through it without any problems, although adults may experience joint pain with this infection.
It’s also worse for people with sickle cell disease. Their red blood cells can get dangerously depleted during a bout with fifth disease.
Why is this condition known by a number instead of a real name? The vernacular term “slapped cheek syndrome” isn’t too endearing; neither is its scientific moniker, “erythema infectiosum,” nor “parvovirus B19,” the name of the organism that causes it.
Even “variola” has a certain melodic ring to it, and that (smallpox) was the Chuck Norris of infectious disease.
It turns out that, by old tradition, several of the rashy illnesses of childhood were known by numbers:
- First disease was measles
- Second disease was scarlet fever, caused by the same bacterium that causes strep throat
- Third disease was rubella
- Fourth was Duke’s disease, which is not a defined disease today
- Fifth, our friend erythema infectiosum
- Sixth, roseola—which sounds a lot like rubella and rubeola—is actually caused by a couple of strains of herpes viruses
It seems that, just like squirrels are said to be rats with good PR, the names of the other diseases were relatively euphonious compared to “erythema infectiosum,” and so the rather anonymous “fifth disease” was the name that stuck.
Frankly, the whole rubella-rubeola-roseola conglomerate might be easier to keep straight if each of those diseases were still referred to by number. Maybe it’s time fifth disease got the charming name it’s never had. How about . . . slappacheeka? Rosella? Gwendolyn?
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