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

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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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Medicine
Scientists Are Working on a Way to Treat Eye Floaters With Lasers
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Even people with 20/20 eyesight should be familiar with this scenario: You're enjoying a clear view when a faint doodle shape drifts into your peripheral vision like an organism under a microscope. Floaters affect almost everyone, but there's currently no medically accepted, non-invasive way to treat them. Two doctors with Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston are working to change that. As IFLScience reports, the team believes that lasers may be the solution to bothersome eye squiggles.

As Chirag Shah and Jeffrey Heier write in their study in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, lasers can be used to safely combat the underlying causes of floaters. Also known as muscae volitantes, Latin for “hovering flies,” the condition comes from physical debris leaking into your eyeball. The front of your eyes is filled with a liquid called vitreous humor, and when drops of that gelatinous substance break off from the whole, the bits cast shadows on your retinas that look like gray blobs. Because floaters literally float inside your eyes, trying to focus on one is almost impossible.

These spots aren't typically a problem for young people, but as you get older your vitreous humor becomes more watery, which increases the chance of it slipping out and clouding your vision. Retinal detachment and retinal tears are also rare but serious causes of symptomatic floaters.

Shah and Heier tested a new method of pinpointing and eliminating floaters with a YAG laser (a type of laser often used in cataract surgery) on 36 patients. An additional 16 test subjects were treated with a sham laser as a placebo. They found that 54 percent of the treated participants saw their floaters decrease over six months, compared to just 9 percent of the control group. So far, the procedure appears be safe and free of side effects, but researchers noted that more follow-up time is needed to determine if those results are long-term.

At the moment, people with symptomatic floaters can choose between surgery or living with the ailment for the rest of their lives. YAG laser treatment may one day offer a safe and easy alternative, but the researchers say they will need to expand the size of future studies before the treatment is ready to go public.

[h/t IFLScience]

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Bite Helper
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technology
New Gadget Claims to De-Itch Your Mosquito Bites
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Bite Helper

Summer can be an itchy time for anyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors. Mosquitos are everywhere, and some people are particularly susceptible to their bites and the itching that comes with them. A new product aims to stop the suffering. Bite Helper, reviewed by Mashable, is designed to stop your bites from itching.

Place the pen-like device over your swollen bite and it will begin to emit heat and vibrations designed to quell the itch. It’s meant to increase blood flow around the area to alleviate your pain, heating your skin up to 120°F for up to 45 seconds. It’s the size of a thin tube of sunscreen and is battery powered.

Most dermatologists advise applying cold to alleviate itching from insect bites, so the question is: Will heating up your skin really work? Bite Helper hasn’t been clinically tested, so it’s hard to say for certain how effective it would be. There has been some research to suggest that heat can help increase blood flow in general, but decrease histamine-induced blood flow in the skin (part of the body’s normal response to allergens) and reduce itching overall. In a German study of wasp, mosquito, and bee stings, concentrated heat led to a significant improvement in symptoms, though the researchers focused mostly on pain reduction rather than itching.

Bite Helper’s technique "seems like a legitimate claim" when it comes to localized itching, Tasuku Akiyama, who studies the mechanisms of itching at the University of Miami, tells Mental Floss. "The increase in the blood flow may increase the rate of elimination of itch mediator from the area." However, before that happens, the heat might also make the itch a little worse in the short-term, he cautions. This seems to be borne out by user experience: While Mashable's reviewer found that using the device didn’t hurt at all, his daughter found it too hot to bear for more than a few seconds.

If the device does in fact relieve itching, though, a few seconds of pain may be worth it.

Bite Helper is $25 on Amazon.

[h/t Mashable]

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