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What is Rubella?


Rubella Virus. Wikimedia Commons

Almost everyone is familiar with the measles and mumps, but the 'R' in the MMR vaccine might not ring a bell. Here's the lowdown.

Discovery and Symptoms

Rubella is a disease caused by a virus of the same name. It can be spread through the air or by close contact with a carrier and cause symptoms like fever, headache, runny nose, bruising, bloodshot eyes, muscle or joint pain and a fine, red rash, for which the disease is named.

Rubella was first described in the late 1700s by German physician Friedrich Hoffmann. Other Germans studied it and suggested that it was derivative of either measles or scarlet fever, and the disease was nicknamed "German measles," after the doctors who were most familiar with it. In 1814, another German doctor, George de Maton, was called to a school to investigate an outbreak of skin rashes. He recognized the symptoms of German measles and, while examining his patients, realized that the sickness was distinct enough from measles to be its own disease. In 1881, the German measles was recognized as an individual disease, and was named rubella (Latin for "reddish") by British Army surgeon Henry Veale in 1886.

Not So Harmless, After All

For a while, rubella didn't receive much attention. It was a relatively mild illness with symptoms that were uncomfortable but not life-threatening, and lasted only three days to a few weeks. Through the rest of the 19th century, it became a sort of rite of passage for kids not unlike, more recently, chicken pox. Almost every child got sick with it, and would just have to suffer the rash and aches for a few days. This changed in 1941 when ophthalmologist Norman Gregg noticed that a few years after a local rubella outbreak, he would always see a large number of children with cataracts, and often a few other congenital defects, too. Further research showed that, while rubella was not particularly hard on the children or adults who contracted it, the disease could be devastating to unborn babies if their pregnant mother came down with it. Babies with congenital rubella syndrome could be born blind, deaf, with heart defects or with developmental disabilities.

Rubella could not be ignored as harmless any longer, and doctors in the U.S. and Europe started looking for a preventative treatment. In 1964, the last major epidemic of rubella in the U.S. broke out. Some 20,000 infants were born with congenital defects after the disease struck them in utero, and another 11,000 died.  In 1969, Stanley Plotkin and colleagues from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia developed a preventative rubella vaccine, which was then combined with the measles and mumps vaccines in 1972. After the vaccine's development, the number of rubella cases in the U.S. fell sharply, and today there are fewer than 1,000 cases reportedly annually. But Europe and Canada have not fared as well. In 2004, there was a rubella outbreak among an orthodox Protestant group in the Netherlands who had religious objections to vaccination; 387 cases of rubella were reported, and the disease then spread to Canada, resulting in 309 more cases there. Between the two countries, there were two fetal deaths and 14 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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