health scan 88.
(photo credit: )
Ben-Gurion University medical historian Prof.
Shifra Schwartz has an odd mission - to find Jewish adults, now in
their 60s and beyond, who as children in the US underwent low-grade
radiation treatments for the skin disease known as ringworm. Schwartz,
on BGU's faculty of Health Sciences' Prywes Center for Medical
Education, is writing a book about victims of this procedure, in the
early decades of the 20th century considered the "state-of-the-art"
treatment for this condition. Ringworm usually infected the scalps of
its victims; radiation was used to remove the hair with the root to
eliminate the disease. The treatment was meant to minimize the pain the
children were put through, because radiation made the hair fall out
rather than having to pull it out or shave it closely. This treatment
did not involve medical negligence, she insists. What doctors did not
know then was that such radiation could cause thyroid cancer and
various other types of tumors and other medical problems decades
treatment for ringworm was widespread during Israel's early years, says
Schwartz, especially among Sephardi children from North Africa. When
the dangers were realized, Israelis who took ill as a result regarded
it as a matter of ethnic discrimination and emotional trauma, like
arriving in the country and immediately getting sprayed with DDT. Even
recently, the Knesset has dealt with related issues such as
compensation for damage and suffering.
But the BGU historian insists the decision to radiate was not
ethnically based: An American Jewish health insurance service named OSE
radiated the heads of 27,000 Ashkenazi Jewish children who arrived in
New York from Eastern Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s,
about 4,500 Ashkenazi children who arrived were found to have ringworm,
and about 2,500 were treated with radiation by OSE.
But no records were kept of those who received treatment, so
those who have survived all these years probably don't know they are at
high risk for possible consequences, Schwartz has informed The Jerusalem Post
Although research into ringworm treatment of this group has been
conducted at New York University, the doctors who treat these Jews
probably have no idea of their high risk for illness; some may have
never heard of the skin disease or the standard treatment given so long
ago, before an oral pill or liquid named Griseofulvin - effective in
treating ringworm of the scalp - was put on the market in the late
1950s. Schwartz disclosed that special schools for immigrant children
with ringworm were set up in New York so they could learn but not
spread the disorder.
Schwartz is studying the effects of ringworm
irradiation on children around the world, including Portugal (30,000
were treated in the early 1950s), Serbia (50,000) and Eastern Europe
(27,000). She says children underwent radiation treatment throughout
the US, thus the story is a universal one that should be investigated
not only for historical reasons but also to follow up the possible
The historian notes than unlike the US health authorities, the
Health Ministry here issued instructions to all doctors to ask patients
over 65 who have problems in their heads and necks whether they
underwent radiation for ringworm in their youths. However, there was a
special department in Washington, DC that has documents showing that
ringworm was quite common in this era in various parts of the country.
news of Schwartz's research was published in Serbia, hundreds of calls
were received from people who as children had undergone radiation. In
Portugal, a doctor who noticd a rise in thyroid cancer among his
elderly patients investigated and found all had undergone radiation for
the skin fungus.
Schwartz says she is looking for ringworm radiation victims
from New York in the 1940 not because she can offer medical services
but so they will finally be aware of the potential danger to their
health and seek appropriate treatment. Their testimony will also
contribute to documenting the story in her book and archival material.
In addition, the data will enable her to prove that radiation of the
heads of newly arrived Sephardi immigrant children was not ethnic
Anyone with information can contact the Beersheba researcher at [email protected]