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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.

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Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
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Medicine
Bill and Melinda Gates Will Repay Nigeria's $76 Million Polio-Fighting Loan
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Not long after announcing a $100 million donation to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, Bill and Melinda Gates have agreed to pay off Japan's $76 million loan to Nigeria to stamp out polio, Quartz reports.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world, but it's still present in Nigeria, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, according to The Conversation, Nigeria accounted for 86 percent of all polio cases in Africa. This high number was thanks in part to low immunization rates and calls from extremists to boycott polio vaccinations out of fear that they were tainted with anti-fertility steroids.

National and international campaigns were launched to lower polio rates in Nigeria, and in 2014 the nation received the loan from Japan to boost disease-fighting efforts. Progress has been made since then, with no new cases of polio reported in Nigeria in 2017. Two children had contracted polio in 2016, two years after Nigeria's last known case.

Nigeria's loan repayments to Japan were slated to begin in 2018. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to cover the costs after Nigeria met its goal of "achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country's local government areas," Quartz reports. The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years.

While the Gates Foundation is lending a hand to Nigeria, the Associated Press reports that health officials in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province recently launched a new chapter in the nation's ongoing struggle against the disease. Health workers will engage in a week-long, door-to-door vaccination campaign, though efforts like this are risky due to threats from the Taliban and other militant groups, who view vaccinations as a Western conspiracy and believe they sterilize children. Anti-polio efforts in Pakistan also suffered after the CIA used vaccinations as a cover to get DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound.

[h/t Quartz]

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George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
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Design
This 1907 Vision Test Was Designed for People of All Nationalities
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain
George Mayerle, U.S. National Library of Medicine // Public Domain

At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco was a diverse place. In fact, Angel Island Immigration Station, located on an island in the San Francisco Bay, was known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” processing some 300,000 people coming to the U.S. in the early 1900s. George Mayerle, a German optometrist working in the city at the time, encountered this diversity of languages and cultures every day in his practice. So in the 1890s, Mayerle created what was billed as “the only [eye] chart published that can be used by people of any nationality,” as The Public Domain Review alerts us.

Anticipating the difficulty immigrants, like those from China or Russia, would face when trying to read a vision test made solely with Roman letters for English-speaking readers, he designed a test that included multiple scripts. For his patients that were illiterate, he included symbols. It features two different styles of Roman scripts for English-speaking and European readers, and characters in Cyrillic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Chinese scripts as well as drawings of dogs, cats, and eyes designed to test the vision of children and others who couldn't read.

The chart, published in 1907 and measuring 22 inches by 28 inches, was double-sided, featuring black text on a white background on one side and white text on a black background on the other. According to Stephen P. Rice, an American studies professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey, there are other facets of the chart designed to test for a wide range of vision issues, including astigmatism and color vision.

As he explains in the 2012 history of the National Library of Medicine’s collections, Hidden Treasure [PDF], the worldly angle was partly a marketing strategy on Mayerle’s part. (He told fellow optometrists that the design “makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.”)

But that doesn’t make it a less valuable historical object. As Rice writes, “the ‘international’ chart is an artifact of an immigrant nation—produced by a German optician in a polyglot city where West met East (and which was then undergoing massive rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake)—and of a globalizing economy.”

These days, you probably won’t find a doctor who still uses Mayerle’s chart. But some century-old vision tests are still in use today. Shinobu Ishihara’s design for a visual test for colorblindness—those familiar circles filled with colored dots that form numbers in the center—were first sold internationally in 1917, and they remain the most popular way to identify deficiencies in color vision.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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