Where Are They Now? Diseases That Killed You in Oregon Trail

You have died of dysentery.

These are five words familiar to anyone who has attempted to caulk a wagon and ford rivers en route to the Willamette Valley. Oregon Trail not only taught generations of kids about Western migration in 19th-century America, it also familiarized them with various strange-sounding diseases. Let’s catch up with some of those diseases and find out if they're just as nasty today.

1. Everyone Has Cholera

Then: The number one killer of the actual Oregon Trail, cholera is an infection of the intestines caused by ingesting the bacteria Vibrio cholerae. Spread through contaminated food or water, cholera released an enterotoxin that effectively flooded the intestines with excess water. This led to continual watery diarrhea, causing severe dehydration and often death. The worst outbreaks occurred on the Oregon Trail in 1849, 1850 and 1852. The only available treatment in the game was a medicine known as laudanum—understood today to be pure opium.

Now: According to the Centers for Disease Control, cholera remains a global pandemic. Though there is still no vaccine for the disease (in the U.S.), it can be treated with a regimen of fluids and electrolytes, as well as antibiotics. The best defense remains stringent sanitation regulations, a luxury afforded primarily to industrialized countries. The World Health Organization has recorded recent outbreaks in Mexico (November 2013), Sierra Leone (August 2012), Democratic Republic of Congo (July 2011), Haiti (November 2010, October 2010), Pakistan (October 2010) and a severe outbreak in Zimbabwe (June 2009, March 2009, February 2009, January 2009, December 2008).

2. Joseph Has Diphtheria

Then: Caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae, diphtheria is an airborne bacterial disease. It usually showed up first in the nose and throat, but could also surface as skin lesions. A gray, fibrous material would grow over airways, causing difficulty breathing and sometimes uncontrollable drooling, as well as a deep cough and chills. Diphtheria was most common on the Trail during the winter months.

Now: Routine childhood immunizations have nearly erased diphtheria in the U.S. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there are less than five cases here a year. Though it is still a problem in crowded nations with poor hygiene, diphtheria is now rarely fatal.

3. You Have Dysentery

Then: Dysentery, a.k.a. shigellosis, was not as widespread on the trails as its peer cholera. During the 19th century, dysentery was a bigger problem on the Civil War battlefields. Like cholera, dysentery spread via contaminated water and food, thriving in hot and humid weather. Unlike cholera, dysentery lived in the colon and caused bloody, loose excrement. The rise of dysentery in the 1800s was partially due to infected warm cow’s milk, an ideal incubator for shigellosis.

Now: Dysentery is still a major threat to the developing world. Not only is there no effective vaccine, recent strains are increasingly resistant to antibiotics—the only proven line of defense in tandem with fluids. 

4. Sally Has Measles

Then: Evolved from the rinderpest virus, the highly contagious measles ravaged the United States in the 19th century. It was not measles, but complications like bronchitis and pneumonia, that made it life threatening. Measles was spread through contaminated droplets—coughing, sneezing, wiping one’s nose and then touching anything. It caused nasty rashes, fever, and conjunctivitis.

Now: A vaccine was discovered in the mid-20th century, virtually eradicating measles from the developed world. It is now part of the trifecta inoculation MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) most American children receive in infancy and again at age 6. Though relatively contained, measles is still endemic: In 2009, there was an outbreak in Johannesburg and other parts of South Africa. New Zealand saw a small spike in August 2011, with nearly 100 cases popping up in Auckland. And as of May 16, 2014, there have been 15 outbreaks in the U.S., resulting in 216 cases of measles in 18 states, "the highest number of cases reported in the United States during this time period in 18 years," Dr. Greg Wallace, head of measles activities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN. (Notably, that number doesn't include the latest cases from an outbreak in Ohio.) Most of the people who got measles were unvaccinated and got the disease while traveling; measles then spread among unvaccinated members of the community when the travelers returned home.

5. Mary Has Died of Typhoid Fever

Then: Unfamiliar with the virtues of boiling water first, Oregon Trail pioneers contracted typhoid like many other diseases—from contaminated water. Caused by Salmonella Typhi, typhoid was spread when an infected person “sheds” the bacteria. Sparing you the gross details, let’s just say the bacteria lived in a person’s blood and intestines. The major symptom was high fever, followed by weakness and loss of appetite. In the warmer months, typhoid was a real killer.

Now: Still a killer, though not in the Western world. The CDC says it’s preventable with good sanitation and antibiotics, but even Westerners are not immune when traveling in developing countries. The CDC strongly recommends anyone planning travel to a "non-industrialized" nation get vaccinated—and avoid any tap water or food cooked in unclean water.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
An Ancient Book Blasted with High-Powered X-Rays Reveals Text Erased Centuries Ago
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A book of 10th-century psalms recovered from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is an impressive artifact in itself. But the scientists studying this text at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University were less interested in the surface text than in what was hidden beneath it. As Gizmodo reports, the researchers were able to identify the remains of an ancient Greek medical text on the parchment using high-powered x-rays.

Unlike the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) used by the scientists is a much simpler and more common type of particle accelerator. In the SSRL, electrons accelerate to just below the speed of light while tracing a many-sided polygon. Using magnets to manipulate the electrons' path, the researchers can produce x-ray beams powerful enough to reveal the hidden histories of ancient documents.

Scanning an ancient text.
Mike Toth, R.B. Toth Associates, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the case of the 10th-century psalms, the team discovered that the same pages had held an entirely different text written five centuries earlier. The writing was a transcription of the words of the prominent Greek physician Galen, who lived from 130 CE to around 210 CE. His words were recorded on the pages in the ancient Syriac language by an unknown writer a few hundred years after Galen's death.

Several centuries after those words were transcribed, the ink was scraped off by someone else to make room for the psalms. The original text is no longer visible to the naked eye, but by blasting the parchment with x-rays, the scientists can see where the older writing had once marked the page. You can see it below—it's the writing in green.

X-ray scan of ancient text.
University of Manchester, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now that the researchers know the hidden text is there, their next step will be uncovering as many words as possible. They plan to do this by scanning the book in its entirety, a process that will take 10 hours for each of the 26 pages. Once they've been scanned and studied, the digital files will be shared online.

Particle accelerators are just one tool scientists use to decipher messages that were erased centuries ago. Recently, conservationists at the Library of Congress used multispectral imaging, a method that bounces different wavelengths of light off a page, to reveal the pigments of an old Alexander Hamilton letter someone had scrubbed out.

[h/t Gizmodo]


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