I was sent an early copy of a new book, Touching Distance, last week. I was gripped by it from start to finish and it consumed most of my weekend.
Touching Distance is set in 1790, in the middle of an epidemic of childbed fever in Aberdeen. A young doctor, Alexander Gordon, discovers - and sacrifices his career and his marriage to publish the fact - that it is he, his peers and midwives who are spreading the disease.
To continue the brief history lesson, Oliver Wendell-Holmes published the same information in 1843. He too was ridiculed by his peers. A few years later, and Ignaz Semmelweis, drew the same conclusion, markedly reducing maternal death by using a chlorinated lime solution for hand washing. He too was ridiculed.
Medicine has moved on: in the West, hygiene practice means that childbed fever does not reach epidemic rates of occurrence - it is not being spread by doctors or midwives. What has not changed is that streptococcus, the cause that Gordon et al couldn't have known of, is still with us. It may wax and wane in prevalence, but it is in us, on us and with us at all times. It is still causing deaths from childbed fever.
We cannot assume that hand washing makes our mothers safe. We can't vaccinate and we can't wash it out of the world, but we can spot the symptoms of its infection while there is still time to treat a mother before she requires long term hospitalisation, a hysterectomy or she dies.