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One hundred years ago, neurologists were faced with a surge of cases of uncertain cause manifesting a protean array of symptoms. Through careful semiological description, pattern recognition and histopathological analysis, von Economo and others unified these seemingly disparate cases, defining the epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Several landmark papers in the Journal of Neurology and Psychopathology (now JNNP) helped to illuminate clinical and pathological aspects of this new disease. In the subsequent hundred years, there have been other infectious epidemics affecting the nervous system, with causative agents including flaviviruses, influenza, enteroviruses (eg, poliomyelitis) and coronaviruses (CoV). Neurologists seeing patients in the age of COVID-19 have much to gain from the historical lessons of the epidemics of the last 100 years in responding to these new challenges.
A case of encephalitis lethargica involving chiefly the cerebral cortex
Authors: Watson GA
Year Published: 1920
Epidemic encephalitis: Clinical papers by various authors
Authors: Horder T
Year Published: 1920
The first systematic descriptions of encephalitis lethargica were those of von Economo in 1916–1917, who coined the term (figure 1),1 which is also known as ‘von Economo’s disease’.2 However, there were probable cases in 1915 predating the ‘influenza epidemic’, and von Economo and others suggested that earlier epidemics throughout modern history may also have been related.3
Encephalitis lethargica appears to have spread from Eastern Europe to Germany, France and Britain between 1916 and 1918 and and then to have affected much of the rest of the world in the following few years.1 4 It probably affected more than a million people during the first half of the twentieth century, before apparently disappearing, although some clinicians …
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