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March 2000

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Q & A WITH JEAN - about St Vitus Dance

Pat Cobb, Harpsden, Henley on Thames, Oxon

"My aunt suffered from St Vitus Dance and I would like to know what this disease is?"

'St Vitus Dance’ is a disease named after a child martyr who died in 3oo AD and is the popular name for chorea. The main features are uncontrolled and involuntary muscle movements with facial contortions and jerking body and limbs. The following description comes from a 1935 edition of a medical book first published in the 1890s and reflects the limited professional knowledge at that time about the cause, effect and treatment of this unfortunate condition.

In the late nineteenth-century it was thought to mainly affect white females, especially young, excitable girls aged 10 to 15 and was rarely found among "the Negro and native races of America". 'School-made chorea’ was said to affect bright, intelligent and active-minded girls who, stimulated by parents and teachers, were anxious to do well at school. Other possible causes mentioned were infectious diseases such as scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, gonorrhea, congenital syphilis, puerperal fever and tonsillitis. Also considered was a history of rheumatism in the family as well as imitation, worry, fright and grief, injury or minor surgery.

Attacks usually lasted eight to ten weeks and were often first noticed by increasing clumsiness. Mild cases didn't affect the muscles or speech very much but patients tended to cry a lot, suffered from nightmares and were "fidgety". Severe cases couldn't talk, dress or feed themselves. The third and worst form was maniacal chorea, chorea insaniens. This usually developed during pregnancy and could lead to fatal inflammation of the heart, murmurs from a faulty mitral valve, inflammation of the brain, blindness or a stroke.

Survivors could be left with muscle pain, a weak arm or leg causing a limp, bad temper, poor concentration, hallucinations, acute melancholia (depression) and a change of character. The worst cases were sent to an asylum.

The disease is now known to occur if infection from a streptocoecal throat reaches the brain. Fortunately, since antibiotics were introduced in the 1940s, cases are rare today.


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