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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
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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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