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8 Old-School Diseases Making a Comeback

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Humanity spent the last hundred years virtually eradicating some of the planet’s most unpleasant diseases. But in the past decade some of them have started showing up again in increasing numbers of people. Here’s why.

1. Scarlet Fever

This deadly disease was first described in the 1500s. Due to its contagious nature and debilitating, if not deadly, effects, outbreaks of scarlet fever were greatly feared. Fans of the Little House on the Prairie series will remember that it was scarlet fever that resulted in Mary’s blindness.

Penicillin proved an effective treatment for the disease, until last year. A sudden spike in scarlet fever cases in China and Macao, up almost threefold and fivefold from 2010, respectively, has alerted scientists to a new, more virulent form of the disease. It was not just Asia that reported more cases, with a sharp increase in incidents in Michigan last year.

2. Rickets

Rickets was most common in industrialized cities during the 1800s. Children who worked in factories had poor diets and got little sunlight, resulting in a Vitamin D deficiency. This can lead to bone problems, bowed legs, and stunted growth. Since it is such an easy disease to avoid simply by spending a few minutes in the sun each day, as child labor laws limited kids’ time trapped inside, rickets all but disappeared.

Since rickets had been perceived as a disease that was “taken care of” for almost a century, doctors in the US and Europe were astonished when it suddenly started showing up in increasing numbers of children in the last decade, with several hundred cases in England alone in 2009. Part of the problem is that many children are back to having poor diets and spending very little time outside. But the problems also present themselves in infants, ironically because new mothers are trying to do everything right. Breast milk does not contain Vitamin D and as more women breastfeed their children exclusively, and for longer time periods, as well as protecting their children’s sensitive skin from the sun when they go out, Vitamin D deficiencies are becoming more common in infants. Doctors urge women to keep breastfeeding, but to give babies vitamin supplements as well.

3. Gout

The first documented case of gout was in Egypt in 2600 BC. While anyone could get it, it was known as “the king’s disease” because symptoms most often presented themselves in royalty and the wealthy; Henry VIII and George IV were both sufferers. There was no cure, and once someone had one attack of gout they were likely to get it again. The main symptom was unbelievably excruciating pain in a joint, usually a toe. Attacks could last up to a week, made walking almost impossible, and even covering one’s self with a light blanket was usually too much pressure on the joint.

The number of people suffering from gout in the US has almost doubled since the early 1990s, with 4% of adults presenting symptoms in 2010, and the numbers are expected to keep rising, for two reasons. One, our diets are atrocious. Eating rich, fatty foods, and drinking alcohol add to your risk of getting a gout attack. Two, gout is much more prevalent in the elderly. 13% of Americans over 80 suffer from gout, an increase of 7% in the last 20 years alone, and as more people live to that age the number will most likely continue to increase.

4. Syphilis

This sexually transmitted disease first appeared in Italy in 1494. While no one is sure where it came from, the date and location have led many historians to conclude it came to Europe from the Americas. For over 400 years it was completely untreatable, and became an epidemic in some areas. Vincent van Gogh’s brother, Winston Churchill’s father, and Al Capone all died of syphilis, while everyone from Henry VIII to Oscar Wilde to Adolf Hitler are suspected cases.

The discovery of penicillin in 1943 as well as a greater awareness of the dangers of unprotected sex led to increasingly fewer people presenting symptoms of the disease. In 2000, public health officials announced that syphilis was almost completely eradicated in the US. But over the next decade the number of people testing positive more than doubled.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that more people are getting tested for STDs in general, so more cases are being caught. But doctors also say it is because of problems with sex education. Many people who test positive contracted the disease through oral sex, which they mistakenly believe is safe without protection. Also, since the disease was so close to being eradicated, many young people were not taught about it in school and are unaware of the symptoms to watch out for.

5-7. Measles/Mumps/Rubella

In the last 150 years, measles is estimated to have killed over 200 million people. Mumps was once the leading cause of viral meningitis. And rubella epidemics resulted in tens of thousands of miscarriages and deaths. Then in the 1960s, vaccines for all three of these diseases were developed. They were combined into one simple vaccine, the MMR, and the number of cases plummeted.

But in 1998, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. The results were widely reported, fueling the anti-vaccine movement, and large numbers of parents stopped vaccinating their children against these diseases. In 2004 and again in 2010 the article and its findings were officially rejected as “utterly false” by the medical community, but the damage had been done. Outbreaks of all three diseases are increasing.

In 2011, 25 states recorded cases of the measles, the most in a decade and a half. The disease is especially dangerous in populations that have had no exposure to it, as the US hasn’t for forty years, meaning incidents are expected to increase among the unvaccinated. Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia and Switzerland all showed increasing numbers of cases in the past decade. In 2010 a mumps outbreak occurred in young, unvaccinated men in Ireland. A mumps outbreak at the University of Iowa lasted 6 months and spread to 13 states. And just last month, more than 20 mumps cases were diagnosed on the Berkeley campus. Doctors expect more outbreaks of these diseases, as the children who were not vaccinated in the immediate aftermath of the article start sharing dorms with each other.

8. Polio

While suspected cases of polio go as far back as Ancient Egypt, the first clinical description of the disease wasn’t written until 1789. While occasional individual cases were not uncommon, it wasn’t until the 20th century that a worldwide polio epidemic occurred, peaking in the 1950s. Franklin D. Roosevelt is probably the most famous sufferer, but at its peak polio paralyzed or killed half a million people every year. Then two different vaccines completely eradicated the disease in all but four countries.

Those countries—Afghanistan, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan—are all showing increased cases of the disease in the last decade. In 2003 leaders in northern Nigeria warned against getting vaccinated, claiming it could cause infertility. This resulted in the disease spreading into Chad, where it had previously been eradicated; 132 cases were reported there in 2011. Afghanistan reported an all-time low number of cases in 2010, but that number more than tripled in 2011, thanks to some people’s refusing to vaccinate their children on religious grounds, as well as the open border with Pakistan, who also saw their reported cases more than double in 2011. Some extremist Muslim leaders in that country have denounced vaccinations as a Western conspiracy.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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