How Rock Springs Battled the Spread of Rheumatic Fever in 1958

How Rock Springs Battled the Spread of Rheumatic Fever in 1958

Students and teachers were just part of the success behind the rheumatic fever prevention program in 1958. Photo credit: Daily Rocket-Miner

There tends to be an insightful and helpful perspective when looking back through history. Even in present day circumstances amidst a worldwide pandemic there are lessons to be learned from the past.

Rock Springs is no stranger to illness. The Rheumatic Fever School Prevention Program, which was introduced by Woman’s Club of Rock Springs (WCRS) President Mary D. Bunning in 1958, stands as an example of community unity and the difference that a group of individuals can make during a public health threat.

With less than 20,000 cases in the United States in present day, the rheumatic fever was a common disease in the 1940s and remained a feared disease through the 1950s. Rheumatic fever is characterized by inflammatory lesions that are distributed throughout connective tissues in various parts of the body such as the heart, joints, blood vessels, skin and brain. What is otherwise a disease of relatively little significance can end up leaving behind permanent heart damage later on down the road.

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Rheumatic fever often produces a defect in the heart valve, which causes what is known as “leaky heart” or “heart murmur.” Rheumatic fever has been shown to be the result of infection with a particular kind of streptococcus or “strep throat”. The best treatment for the disease is prevention, which the WCRS aimed to help implement back in the day.

Starting Up the Program

In 1954, Wyoming’s Rheumatic Fever Prevention Program had first started in Casper with a group of practicing physicians who sought to prevent deaths and disabilities caused by rheumatic fever. Nicknamed “The Casper Project”, the program was initiated at all schools would include a daily inspection of all school children who showed symptoms of colds, sore throats or other upper respiratory illnesses. Cultures were collected from every case and children who tested positive were sent home until a negative culture was obtained. Within four years of beginning the program, the entire school system and all physicians in Casper participated in the program, reducing cases from as many as 70 in a year to a total of three.

As effective as the program proved to be, in the summer of 1958, the WCRS reached out to the registered nurse in charge of Casper’s program. The nurse provided the club with resources and other useful information to help start up the program and campaign for Rock Springs schools to begin a similar preventative program as Casper had done.

By the time school was in session in September of that year, one small elementary school in Rock Springs had reported 26 children with strep throat and seven “suspected” cases of rheumatic fever at Sweetwater Memorial Hospital.

“This brought the need for the program into even greater focus,” Bunning wrote later on.

In December, after sharing resources with the Sweetwater Medical Society, Sweetwater Memorial Hospital and Rock Springs School Board, the rheumatic fever committee was notified that the program was ready for the schools as soon as the lab technicians at the hospital could be trained in Casper.

While technicians were being trained, the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) was notified of the program. The WCRS agreed to provide necessary swabs and throat blades, while the PTAs committed to provided permanent equipment connected to the program.

“We were ready to start work in our first school,” Bunning recorded.

A Successful First Year

Around 28 mothers had volunteered to swab throats at the first school. However, training on how to swab for cultures and plant them onto agar plates was one obstacle they faced. To their relief, the nurse in charge of the Casper program rolled into town and provided the training a few days later.

Teachers at the first school were informed of the program’s simple and straight forward procedures:

“Teachers will send children who complain of sore throats, those who have been absent because of illness, those exhibiting obvious signs of coughs and colds, and those whom she observes as not feeling well,” the document stated. “Only those who have one of the symptoms — swollen and tender glands, fever, beefy or red throat, or a purulent discharge in throat — will be cultured.”

The cultures were then taken to the laboratory at the hospital to be processed. Once the results were known, a record was made for each child where relevant information such as previous reports and treatment information was kept.

As the program grew to include other schools, the need for many volunteers grew. Each school day, two mothers would volunteer for the entire day based on an outlined volunteer schedule. According to Bunning, at least 25 mothers in each school helped as either a “swabber or recorder”.

The schools had also sent out letters to parents and published materials in the newspaper to inform and ask families to participate in the program to help limit the spread of the disease.

“Parents aware of this program, were willingly bringing in younger members of their families for cultures when a child had returned a positive result in school,” Bunning wrote. “Several of the parents were found with a strep throat.”

Mary Bunning. Photo credit: Rock Springs Historical Museum

When schools finished in May of 1959, 8,022 children had been examined, 2,424 cultures had been taken, and 65 cultures had returned positive in the first year of the program.

Bunning, who served as the president of the Rock Springs Woman’s Club from 1958-59, said herself that the rheumatic fever program was “the most important accomplishment of the club” during her time as president of the club.

The program continued for a number of years, eventually being turned over to the PTA. The program had proven to cut down rheumatic fever by as much as 80 percent.

“We are a community noted for respiratory infections, due to our very surroundings,” Bunning recorded. “This program not only awakened our community for the need, but will assure us of their future help in any other program of this type to be inaugurated.”


Rock Springs Historical Museum

Woman’s Club of Rock Springs

Daily Rocket-Miner